Tomatoes: A star is grown
A national advertising campaign is set to begin promoting the humble fruit's virtues.
By TOM ZUCCO
Published January 25, 2006
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
John M. Jack oversees tomatoes as they run through a vat of chlorinated water to be cleaned and sanitized at West Coast Tomato in Palmetto.
It's red, round, a little seedy, and as much as a fruit can be, about to become a national TV star.
For the first time in its 50-year history, the Florida Tomato Committee on Monday will begin a national ad campaign touting the virtues of the Florida tomato.
Four 15-second spots will repeat 600 times over the next 21/2 months on The Food Network, Discovery Health, DIY (Do It Yourself) and other cable channels. The $500,000 campaign is aimed at women age 25 to 54 and was developed by SenaReider, an ad agency based in San Francisco.
The ads are relatively simple, but not dull. One spot shows a picture of a stunningly plump tomato with a female voiceover:
"A whole tomato contains only five grams of carbs, no cholesterol, and was once thought to be an aphrodisiac.
"Fresh, Florida tomatoes.
"You're into that ... aren't you?"
Cute. But to Florida's nearly 125 commercial tomato growers, the messages have a deeper importance.
Virtually all the field-grown tomatoes in the United States sold from December through May each year come from Florida. For the entire year, the state accounts for about 1.5-billion pounds of tomatoes, or 50 percent of all of the domestically produced tomatoes sold in the country.
The 2004-05 hurricane seasons, however, put Florida tomato farmers in a pickle. The storms wiped out many fields and sent the price of tomatoes to triple in some cases. Some restaurants, including Wendy's, were forced to make tomatoes available only upon request.
After each hurricane season passed, Florida growers replanted quickly, got their shipments into stores, and prices started to fall. Unfortunately for the growers, both times shoppers were slow to respond to the lower prices.
The result was a tomato glut in 2004 and again last year. The price sank so low early last year it was cheaper for growers to let their tomatoes die on the vine than to pick, wash and ship them for sale. Farmers wound up donating more than 700,000 pounds of tomatoes, in part to draw attention to their surplus.
This is where the ad campaign comes in. The spots praise the fruit's succulence and health benefits, and also include much-needed handling messages. According to the Tomato Committee, the grower's trade association, 77 percent of buyers mistakenly put whole tomatoes in the refrigerator, which causes the vegetables to become mushy and kills the flavor enzyme.
The ads are also designed to bring retailers into the campaign.
"It takes a little time," Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion for the Tomato Committee, said of the effort to inform the public. "We want people to know prices are coming down, the crop is here, and we're excited about this season.
"The tomato," she said, "is the big hero."
It certainly is for Bob Spencer, a third-generation tomato grower and packer. Spencer, 45, is a part-owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto. His business includes about 3,500 acres of tomato plants throughout the state.
"The storms really threw a kink into our growing operations, especially around Immokalee," Spencer said. "Some of the yield dropped by 80 percent."
That had the effect of sending grocery store prices from around $1.49 per pound to about $3.79 per pound.
But within three months, Spencer said, newly planted tomatoes were ready for market and prices stabilized. Now, he says, he wants people to know tomatoes are available and affordable.
"We're a little anxious," he said. "We don't have an unlimited budget, so we hope it pays off.
"It's a major commitment on our part."
Tom Zucco an be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8247.
Florida growers harvested 42,000 acres of tomatoes in the 2004-2005 season (mid-October to mid-June) and hired about 33,000 workers during the peak period.
Canada is the primary export destination for Florida tomatoes. The state competes with imports from Mexico during most of the season. Exports to Mexico are minimal.
Botanically, tomatoes are fruits and should be treated like bananas during the ripening process. They should not be refrigerated below 55 degrees.
Although the tomato was described as a salad ingredient before 1600, it was commonly regarded as poisonous, and only within the last century has it become recognized as a valuable food. All parts of the plant but the fruit are toxic. It was reintroduced to the United States as a food plant around 1800 and now ranks third among our vegetable crops.
Source: Florida Tomato Committee, the Columbia Encyclopedia
[Last modified January 25, 2006, 00:54:10]
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