Florida’s tomato and strawberry farmers look to future amid market, climate challenges

Florida tomato and strawberry farmers are no strangers to a changing climate. They have already begun adapting to warmer temperatures through heat-resistant varieties and suitable production technology. However, can they continue to adapt to rising heat amidst other emerging factors including growing foreign competition, labor shortages and changing consumer preferences?

According to a new study by Florida International University (FIU), a multi-pronged strategy involving technology, business and government policy is needed to address these issues.

FIU study uncovers ways for Florida farmers to become more resilient amid market and climate challenges.

Based on a Florida regional climate model, the climate is going to continue to warm in the future, especially during warmer summer months. 

Florida tomato and strawberry farmers are no strangers to a changing climate. They have already begun adapting to warmer temperatures through heat-resistant varieties and suitable production technology. However, can they continue to adapt to rising heat amidst other emerging factors including growing foreign competition, labor shortages and changing consumer preferences?

“The temperature increases in the future could cause tomato yields to decline 7 to 10 percent and strawberry yields to decline 10 to 17 percent in varieties that are not heat resistant,” said FIU research scientist, Saoli Chanda, the study’s main author. These results suggest farmers and crop breeders cannot let their guard down and should continue to develop and plant more heat-resistant crop varieties. 

Throughout the years, Florida growers have experienced a declining share in the U.S. retail market for their open-field green round tomatoes. The decline is in part due to a sharp increase in the import of tomatoes from Mexico, which are available at a much lower cost — a box of tomatoes in Florida can cost $10 per box to produce, while Mexican farmers can ship the same at $8 per box. 

U.S. consumers have also shifted their preference from open-field round tomatoes to greenhouse-produced vine ripe tomatoes. Some Florida growers tried growing vine ripe tomatoes, but higher costs and the disease-causing humid climate were not in their favor.

Agriculture in Florida and throughout the U.S. is also confronting a growing labor shortage. Farmers in Florida rely on more foreign guest workers, who need an H-2A visa. Based on the information available from the U.S. Department of Labor, the new study estimated that the number of H-2A workers in Florida had increased 658 percent between 2010 and 2019. Furthermore, the immigration laws require farmers to spend thousands of dollars on recruiting, training and paying for the basic living needs of those workers. Rising costs of labor, as well as other inputs including chemicals and packing materials have put additional pressure on farmers.

There are some bright spots amid these challenges. The FIU study uncovers ways for Florida farmers to become more resilient by re-focusing their efforts on new business models, technological advancements, consumer education and policy reforms.

“Over the years, Florida tomato and strawberry growers have implemented environmentally friendly and socially responsible production and labor practices,” said Mahadev Bhat, a professor of Earth and Environment and director of the study. “A suitable branding mechanism, especially for environmentally sustainable practices, could help increase the consumer recognition and market value of Florida produce against imports.” 

Programs currently exist that may help increase consumer awareness. The Fresh-from-Florida is a branding program that promotes Florida-grown agricultural products in the marketplace. Growers, retailers, and the state may want to join hands in instituting a similar program that clearly recognizes not only local products, but also sustainability practices that farmers are already implementing, according to Bhat.

Another program that has been in practice for the tomato industry is the Fair Food Program, a worker-driven program that promotes fair wage and socially responsible working conditions such as protection against heat exhaustion, mandatory breaks and bonuses to farmworkers.  This program has potential for increased consumer recognition of practices that some tomato farmers have already implemented, provided a large number of buyers also take part in it.

“In light of our findings, supply chain resiliency will continue to require risk mitigation through diversification,” said FIU Business Professor Carlos Parra, a co-author of this study. 

Successful Florida growers have implemented comprehensive business adaptation strategies involving, among others: the acquisition of repacking centers in different cities, maintaining year-round production by extending their operations to other states, going into the seedling business, direct selling to food services (e.g., hospitality and tourism industry, etc.), and entering more pre-harvest contract pricing arrangements with large buyers. 

While the above strategies will require significant capital investments that not all growers can afford, they will allow farmers to offset revenue losses that might occur due to future climate changes. Undoubtedly, capital investments and operational costs would be higher because of the need to implement effective new customer acquisition strategies with competitive branding and marketing. Small growers who could not afford these investments would have to rely on market intermediaries or more direct and local sales to stay competitive.

As demand in the U.S. tomato market shifts toward more diverse products, growers may also rethink their production strategy and align with the changing market trends of specialty segments. In the short run, growers could find this diversification strategy expensive. However, in the long run, it may become imperative for them to make this gradual transition with the support of advancements in cost-saving technology, according to the study.

Growers look to the U.S. government to help sustain a level playing field against foreign competition. A 2019 U.S.-Mexico agreement precludes Mexican growers from exporting round green tomatoes to the U.S. below 33 cents per pound in 2021, also called the reference price. Florida growers urge that this reference price be continuously aligned with growing future costs of production in the U.S. Nevertheless, the increasing foreign competition will continue to make Florida farmers look for ways to make their products and market strategies more diversified in the future. 

About this Study

This FIU Institute of Environment’s Agroecology Program study was made possible by generous support from the Walmart Foundation. The findings and recommendations of the study are those of the researchers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Walmart Foundation. For more information on the study, please contact bhatm@fiu.edu.