NAPLES, Fla. -- The combination of high temperatures and saturating rains in south Florida this fall has hurt the state's hand-harvested fresh tomato crop.

According to the Naples Daily News, tomatoes are in shorter supply and other produce grown in the southern half of the state is of reduced quality.

"We've had a lousy fall season," said Gene McAvoy, a vegetable agent for the Hendry County Extension Office. "Up until a few weeks ago, it was very hot. We had 90-degree weather in November."

High temperatures retarded the crop's ability to redden naturally and kept some fruit from setting on the vine. The overabundance of rain has brought on more disease, McAvoy said.

"The tomato may look good when we pick it, but it's carrying different pathogens and diseases," he said. "Then once it goes into a box, it breaks down quickly."

End-users will see prices increase with the weakened supply; 25-pound box prices may double.

Between Oct. 4 and Dec. 11, the state's growers shipped more than 8 million 25-pound boxes of tomatoes. That was only slightly less than the same period a year ago, but the acreage is up by 11 percent from 14,000 to 15,550, said Les Harrison, a development representative for the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumers Services.

Unlike the process tomato crop, nearly all of which is grown in California and harvested by September, the Florida crop comes later and is used for fresh preparations, such as salads and sandwiches.

Florida tomato growers say the season is reminiscent of the fall of 1997, when El Nino brought rough weather followed by a warm and wet winter. Continued rain, McAvoy said, will only increase disease and slow harvest rates.

"It could stop raining next week, and we could have a great crop in the spring, although indications are this is an El Nino year," he said.

Scott Fulford, general manager of Falcon Tomato Farms in Immokalee, Fla., a produce wholesaler to hotels, theme parks and restaurants in Orlando, said he's working extra hard to satisfy his customers' demands.

"I've been lucky with the supply," he said. "I'm getting what I need. But it has been a struggle."

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