In March, after months of negotiations, it appeared Tony DiMare and other proponents of the Florida tomato industry won. They contended to the U.S. Department of Commerce that Mexican tomatoes were being dumped on the U.S. market at prices so ridiculously low, American growers couldn't compete. After tense discussions, with talk of the tomato war's ripple effect possibly damaging U.S. exports to Mexico, an agreement was reached.
The prices of Mexican tomatoes were increased. More enforcement was promised, by the U.S. government and Mexico.
It's not enough, DiMare said.
"We're not satisfied," said DiMare, president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a lobbying group. DiMare is also the vice president of DiMare Co., an 85-year-old produce business started by his grandfather and two great-uncles in Boston. DiMare Co., said to be one of the nation's largest tomato producers, has farms and packing plants in California and Florida, with farms in Hillsborough and a plant and offices in Ruskin.
DiMare, who attended three meetings with the Commerce Department about the negotiations, said he has repeatedly contacted the agency after the results were announced, "expressing our displeasure and concern over what has been created with this agreement."
The agreement is complex and began in 1996 with accusations by American growers of Mexican companies dumping tomatoes — selling products at less than their cost of production. That investigation was suspended when Mexican growers agreed to a price. The agreement was revised in 2002 and 2008 before American tomato growers filed complaints with the Commerce Department last year.
DiMare said the new agreement creates a loophole where Mexican farmers can grow tomatoes in greenhouses (which have a more expensive selling price) but label them as open field (which are sold about 10 cents per pound cheaper.) He also said there shouldn't be a difference in prices between summer and winter harvests, which there is. He is upset because he said the U.S. government never demanded to find out costs of production from Mexican growers, so it isn't known if the raised prices in the agreement are sufficient.
"You must have the Mexican producers' cost of production," he said. "How can you establish what the reference price should be without that?"
Florida's tomato industry is second in the nation, slightly trailing California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The two states account for about two-thirds of the country's tomato production. Hillsborough County produces 14 percent of Florida's tomatoes. Florida traditionally maintained an advantage from December through the latter part of May in the nation, where tomatoes here are ready earlier than in other states.
But Mexico's investment in greenhouse growing has them producing year-round, which DiMare said has led to the crumbling of the American tomato industry. He said before the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, there were 250 tomato growers in Florida.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said there are now less than 75 tomato growers.
"This is what's left," Brown said. "We are struggling to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to buy tomatoes grown in America by Americans."
But Mexican growers and advocates say the fault is not with price but taste. At least 60 percent of Florida's tomatoes are grown for the fast food industry.
"Mexico is not the problem. The problem is (Florida) has not evolved. … They have become irrelevant in the marketplace," said Martin Ley, a spokesman for the Mexican growers and an executive with Mexican tomato importer Del Campo, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times in November.
"They've continued to supply tomatoes the consumer doesn't want," he said.
DiMare said Florida growers will continue to fight.
"This is going to continue going forward unless Commerce can enforce an agreement that will eliminate dumping of produce from Mexico," he said.
"From our view, they have yet to do that."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.