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You probably have to be over 50 to realize it, but there was a time when Florida tomatoes – especially those from the Ruskin area – had the same kind of éclat and market appeal as onions from Vidalia, GA, or garlic from Gilroy, CA.

It’s hard to remember because Florida growers gave all that up over a period of several decades in exchange for fat contracts from fast food purveyors, like Burger King and Taco Bell and McDonald’s, all of whom were looking for beautiful, unscarred, bright red tomatoes with shelf life — taste and aroma be damned.

Appearance was everything – that’s what America wanted (and was buying) so that’s what Florida grew.

But the last three decades have not been kind to Florida tomato growers in the wake of the 1990’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened borders to trade with few restrictions between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Mexican growers – and/or American growers operating in Mexico – had much less restrictive input criteria and certainly more affordable labor.

As a result, cheap Mexican tomatoes – the taste and aroma equivalent of anything Florida was growing – flooded the U.S. market. The Mexican tomatoes cost a fraction of what it took U.S. growers to produce. The market had an easy choice to make and did so: Mexican tomatoes, mostly grown under protected horticulture (think canvas walls to prevent wind scarring) became the standard at the grocery store and often in the fast food industry as the perfect topping for burgers and tacos across the nation.

Which makes the recent announcement from burger giant Wendy’s that it will soon convert all its locations to using only greenhouse-grown tomatoes, sourced from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, all the more a slap in the face to field-grown tomato growers.

In the wake of NAFTA and new competition from Mexico, Florida growers filed a complaint with the federal Department of Commerce that led to the first Tomato Suspension Agreement in 1996, which, contrary to its name, did not suspend the import of Mexican tomatoes into the U.S., it merely set a series of standards that regulated pricing of Mexican product in the U.S.

That agreement has not performed as advertised – Mexican product has consistently continued to enter American markets with unfair pricing advantages at or below the cost of production.

The U.S. had to respond to the competitive threat. Florida growers did not intentionally decide to grow big, pretty, tasteless tomatoes, like they have for the last two decades – they only ever tried to give the people what they want. In so doing, empires were built. But futures were mortgaged, and over the past couple of decades, that bill has increasingly become due.

Wendy’s isn’t even a player in the Florida tomato deal – they walked away from that a few years ago in the wake of labor negotiations from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a labor group that sought an extra penny a pound from growers for pickers. Big players like McDonald’s and the YUM Foods group (Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell) gave into pressure from relentless protests in front of their stores and in the media, and agreed to pay up to make life better for tomato harvesters.

Wendy’s opted out, claiming that the pickers were already covered because agreements with the CIW assured the extra penny a pound, no matter who paid it. It’s worth noting that none of the CIW agreements include any Mexican growing operation.

No, it didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now, but that’s what they did and they got away with it. While the Denny’s and Cracker Barrel restaurant chains were hit with claims of discrimination in recent memory and suffered mightily because of it, one might think of the case of Chick-fil-A, which did the exact same thing but walked away somehow unscathed.

Regardless, the point is now moot. Moving forward, Wendy’s isn’t even going to deal with field-grown tomatoes. No word yet on what that might cost them from a profitability standpoint. Certainly costs will be higher; the chain has promised not to pass those on to consumers. So one can only assume that the burger giant hopes to make up that offset in marketing opportunities.

‘Caught Flat-Footed’

Which may well be the point that Florida tomato growers have come to. How much longer do you keep growing a product that can be grown cheaper and more efficiently somewhere else – with little or no actionable support from your own government — before the light comes on and you realize that change must come?

Schadler

When it comes to the Wendy’s announcement, “We’ve been caught flat-footed a little bit,” admits Michael Schadler of the Florida Tomato Committee, a federally regulated organization that oversees the state’s tomato deal.

What Schadler points out is that Florida tomato growers indeed have not sat still as Mexico has whittled away at its marketing advantages. Ongoing scientific research has led to better versions of the Florida field tomato over the past few years – it’s just that nobody knows that.

“For the last 20 years our industry has not done a very good job of telling our story and controlling the narrative,” Schadler says. “From a PR perspective, things have kind of spun away from us, whether it’s on labor, or greenhouse versus field grown tomatoes.”

Troubling To Producers Across The Country

Understand, Florida tomatoes are not worried about Wendy’s – Wendy’s turned its back on the industry years ago. The bigger issue here is a potential domino effect from other fast food purveyors who are committed to buying Florida product.

“Wendy’s walked away from the Florida industry a number of years ago because of the CIW thing – because of that they went mainly to Mexico,” Schadler says. “Now when they’re saying they’re switching to all greenhouse, actually most of the product they’ve been sourcing for the last however many number of years has been from Mexican protected horticulture production.

“We actually think it’s a positive thing if Wendy’s moves most of their sourcing back to the U.S., even if Florida field growers don’t reap that business. It’s a good thing for companies to purchase tomatoes grown in the country where their restaurants are located. As an American, I hope Wendy’s lives up to that announcement and that it isn’t just marketing, but clearly their statement leaves the door open for them to continue sourcing from Mexico. As a member of the Florida tomato industry, I still hope Wendy’s will reconsider cutting out field-grown entirely.

Domino Effect

“But if this becomes a trend, if they say, ‘We have to source from greenhouse,’ that’s not only troubling to Florida but to producers across the country. If all of a sudden there’s this new narrative that comes into play – ‘Only greenhouse grown product is safe and sustainable.’ That’s not something that’s really sustainable, even from an affordability factor. If there is some kind of domino effect and this does become a trend, there are a number of industries in any state that should be concerned. And there are a whole lot of positive reasons why consumers and buyers should continue to look at field-grown produce.”

As for Florida tomatoes, Schadler says “we’re in a little bit of an awkward position.”

Awkward because, in order to move forward, Florida growers may have to bite the hand that has fed them for the last three decades and move onto greener pastures, so to speak. Or at least do a better job telling the stories of who they are and where they come from.

“For people who have been paying attention, there has been a lot of new development in the Florida industry,” Schadler says.

Varieties have improved. Taste and aroma have gotten better, thanks to research from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science and private participants. But nobody knows that right off the bat.

A Florida original

“We have to make sure people realize that there are a lot of new varieties with an emphasis on taste attributes. We’ve been talking about this for a long time and we need to find a way to tell our story,” Schadler says.

To be clear, Wendy’s decision does not immediately impact the Florida tomato industry at all. But the ripples from that could impact not only Florida tomatoes, but all of U.S. agriculture.

A Harbinger For Other Produce Items?

“I see it as a potential harbinger for the whole field-grown produce industry in the United States,” Schadler says. “And as that affects the Florida tomato industry, we think it’s something that we need to discuss and we want to be part of the conversation and we think there’s another side of the story that’s as compelling if not more compelling than the side the greenhouse industry has to sell.

“There’s two sides to every story. There are a lot of great stories about the greenhouse side, controlling the environment and consistency, but there are some things that get left out of the greenhouse industry as well and one of those is flavor. And frankly, another one of them is affordability. And that’s a big issue too for our country right now as it becomes increasingly hard for middle- and certainly lower-income people to be able to afford fresh produce in the first place.”

Greenhouse-grown produce has advantages to be sure. But so does field-grown produce.

“I don’t think anyone’s opposed to looking at different options,” Schadler says. “But it’s more about looking at whether there’s still a significant value proposition of field-grown tomatoes, where ever they are grown, over greenhouse. There’s the flavor component, the natural component of growing with sun, soil and rain. There’s the fact that our tomatoes have a different taste and texture, one we think are superior to those grown in the greenhouse – we’d leave that to the customer to decide.

“Again, we have a compelling story to tell. And it’s probably time, whether it’s Florida or other tomato producers across the United States, to remind consumers how field-grown are such a value proposition, still.”

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