• Terrorist attacks, storm hurt fresh tomato crops

EAST MANATEE, Fla. -- Florida agriculture took a double hit when terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11 and tropical storm Gabrielle ravaged Florida's Gulf Coast on Sept. 14.

According to a report published in the Bradenton Herald, tomatoes, the county's top crop, will be delayed two weeks because of Gabrielle's soaking rains, according to Phyllis Gilreath, an extension agent with the University of Florida's Manatee County extension service.

"We should be picking tomatoes now," Gilreath said. "We won't be picking them until November."

Complicating matters were the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which precipitated a decline in sales at high-end and casual dining restaurants.

Tom O'Brien of C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co. of East Manatee, told the Herald his company, Incredibly Fresh Wholesale Seafood, usually sells $1 million in produce and seafood to hotels and restaurants in Naples every September. This year, however, his sales were half that.

"No one wanted to go to conventions," O'Brien said. "People are just now starting to come back."

Taylor & Fulton Inc. of Palmetto experienced a "horrible" September, said its president, Jay Taylor.

"We were at the peak of our fall tomato crop in our Virginia operation," Taylor said. "Our largest market is New York City. At one point, we had 80 semi loads of tomatoes (each cargo valued at $15,000) unsold. We couldn't get the trucks in there to deliver. It hit us hard for two weeks."

Taylor & Fulton eventually sold the loads at a loss, Taylor said.

The attacks also hurt West Coast Tomato Company's California operation, said its president, Dan McClure, who is based in Palmetto, Fla.

"It certainly had an affect on the California market," McClure said. "It kept the market depressed. It cost the vegetable industry millions and millions."

The wholesale market price for tomatoes fluctuates from $7 to $9 per 25-pound box, but Sept. 11 caused people to stay home and glued to their TVs rather than bother with food, which requires preparation.

"The price went to, 'Come and get 'em,' " Harllee said. "I heard some tomatoes went for as low as $2 for a 25-pound box. When it gets that low, people dump them."

Manatee County tomato growers estimate Gabrielle dumped six to 14 inches of rain, and said its high winds damaged plants.

"Gabrielle came through during the growing season and severely damaged our crops," Taylor said. "Those plants will never be the same. It was the worst damage from a tropical storm I have ever seen. We won't know what it cost us until the end of the season."

West Coast Tomato's crop was set back two weeks, according to McClure.

"The storm impacted us tremendously," McClure said. "It blew off the plastic over the beds. It broke plants off. It caused tomato stakes to fall over."

Harllee said if Manatee County can get a decent crop into market before too long, it might yet do OK.

"The forecast for November will be a decent market, offset by lower yields," Harllee said. "When supply is down, you can have a better market. We just have to see how far off we (Manatee County) really are."

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