- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

IMMOKALEE, Fla. (AP) — Shoppers can expect to pay much more for tomatoes and peppers, especially in grocery stores along the East Coast, for the next two months because Hurricane Wilma flooded fields and tore through crops in Florida.

Florida growers who choose to replant destroyed crops likely won’t be able to bring their produce to market for another two months. This will cause a temporary shortage of tomatoes and peppers because the state provides more than half of the nation’s fresh vegetables between the months of November and February, industry officials said yesterday.

Only California annually produces more fresh vegetables than Florida.

“As the supermarkets come to expect those tomatoes and don’t get them, those prices are going to rise,” said Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

After last year’s hurricanes ruined some Florida vegetable crops, the price of tomatoes rose from $1.50 to $2 a pound to as much as $4 to $5 a pound. But the price didn’t fall right away, even after the Florida crop returned to normal in early January, causing a small drop in consumer demand for tomatoes.

“Prices go up quickly but drop slowly,” Mr. Gilmer said.

Consumers may not see prices rise as dramatically as last year, however, because this year’s California tomato-growing season has lasted longer than last season, and Mexican tomatoes should begin flowing into the United States in December, said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, which markets Florida’s tomatoes.

Hurricane Wilma peeled off the corrugated steel roofs of vegetable packinghouses, and flooded tomato and pepper fields. High wind ripped off the plastic coverings of greenhouses, exposing delicate young tomato and pepper plants to the burning rays of Florida sunshine after the storm.

“This is the worst time of the year for something like this to happen since we’re just starting the season,” said Pat Naughton, a customer service manager for TransGro, which has more than a dozen acres of greenhouses outside Immokalee. “This is our busiest time of the year.”

Last year, Charley and three other hurricanes caused $2 billion to $3 billion in damage to crops and infrastructure. Agriculture officials said it is too early to assess the destruction from Wilma, but that it would likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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