Published on 10/23/08

Farmers forced to leave tomatoes in fields

By Sharon Dowdy
University of Georgia

When it comes to food, perceived danger can be as harmful as a real one, especially to a farmer’s wallet. Georgia tomato growers learned that lesson firsthand when consumers stopped buying fresh tomatoes during this summer’s Salmonella scare linked to fresh tomatoes.

In July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a nationwide warning regarding a Salmonella risk on varieties of raw red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes.

“The disease wasn’t found on Georgia tomatoes, but the general public’s perception was that all tomatoes were affected,” said Archie Flanders, an economist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The scare cost Georgia farmers $13.9 million. Georgia grows about 3,000 acres of tomatoes, worth between $60 million and $80 million annually.

As president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Bill Brim tried to tell consumers through media interviews that Georgia tomatoes were safe. He ate tomatoes straight from his field on television.

“I was interviewed by (all the major Atlanta television media), and I tried my best to persuade people that Georgia tomatoes are safe,” Brim said. “The national news media really put us under by telling people not to eat any tomatoes unless they have the vine attached. What was so sad was that it wasn’t true.”

Georgia growers weren’t the only ones. “Growers in Tennessee, north Florida, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and of course California, were all hit hard, too,” he said.

Brim grows 80 acres of tomatoes in Tifton, Ga. The summer scare cost him $1.2 million. “This was a very significant loss for small- and large-scale farmers,” he said.

Tomatoes are one of Brim’s most expensive crops to grow. An acre of tomatoes costs him $12,000. Bell pepper costs $8,000 per acre. Squash costs him $2,500 per acre, he said.

Georgia tomato growers lost $1.6 million from harvested tomatoes that were picked but not sold. Much of the state’s tomato crop wasn’t harvested because there wasn’t a market for them, Flanders said.

“When wholesalers aren’t buying produce, growers know the market is lost,” Flanders said.

To determine the total impact of the scare, Flanders led a survey conducted by the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

Most Georgia tomatoes are grown in nine southwestern counties and one county in northeast Georgia. Farmers there were surveyed by UGA Cooperative Extension agents.

The survey revealed that 32 percent of Georgia’s tomato acreage was left in the field due to decreased demand caused by the scare, Flanders said. Another 9 percent was lost to discarded harvested and packed tomatoes due to decreased demand.

Before the scare, Brim’s tomatoes were bringing $19 a box. Three days after the FDA warning, the same tomatoes dropped to $4 a box. A box costs him $8 to grow. That doesn’t include the packing cost.

“All the food chains and grocery chains quit taking them,” he said. “I dumped 30 percent of our crop and left 30 percent in the field. It was heartbreaking. … You do an excellent job growing it, and then you don’t have a market to sell it. You just have to leave it to rot.”

Each year, Georgia has two tomato crops, one harvested in summer and one in fall.

Brim is now harvesting 40 acres. Prices are still low.

“I think there are going to be more and more people getting out of the tomato business because the market was just declined,” Brim said. “We just hope the market will turn around and consumers will get the confidence back. I stand behind the fact that Georgia-grown produce is the safest food in the world.”

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.