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Tomato market cools, but supplies still tight

For the past couple of weeks, tomato prices have been rising as supplies from Mexico and Florida decline. But as the price hit $20 per carton for some sizes and varieties, demand has waned.

"As supplies dwindle, the price goes up and that tends to lessen demand, just as it is supposed to," Joe Bernardi told The Produce News May 26. "I expect it to continue to come down a bit in June, but supplies are still going to be tight until after the Fourth of July."

Bernardi, who is president of Bernardi & Associates Inc., was in his Turlock, CA, office on this Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. He noted that a small deal from Quincy, FL, was expected to get started next week (around June 1), but there would be no significant change in supplies until California's San Joaquin Valley kicks in around June 20. A North Carolina tomato deal is expected to start about the same time.

It is Bernardi's contention that those mature green deals, along with the beginning of the Baja California vine-ripe production, will help the supply situation after the Fourth of July pull. In July, he expects promotable volume. That is also the time frame when homegrown and local deals around the country start to kick in. That is typically when tomatoes are in great supply and retail promotions abound.

But Bernardi said the month of June could easily temper those supplies if bad weather hits across the nation.

"I haven't heard of any terrible weather yet, except for a few tornados, and that's always isolated," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Douglas Schaefer, president of E.J.'s Produce Sales Inc. in Phoenix, confirmed that the tomato market took a dip toward the end of the week after several weeks of being very strong. He said it is always difficult to ascertain exactly the root cause in short supplies coming up from Mexico, but that has been the case in the previous couple of weeks.

"I don't know if it was weather problems or what, but supplies have been tight," said Schaefer.

He noted that it has been an amazing spring with regard to vegetable prices. "In my 30-plus years of doing this, I've seen two things happen this year that I've never seen before. I saw a $50-plus celery market and I saw all five major vegetable items above $30 at the same time. I'm talking about lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, green leaf and Romaine."

Those five commodities have backed off their peak prices, and are currently selling in a normal range. That is not the case for celery, which is still above $50 per carton with demand still far exceeding supply.