Hurricane Irma Doesn't Stop Florida Tomato Industry From Meeting
by Doug Ohlemeier,
Posted: 2017-09-07 15:14:26 EST

NAPLES, FL – As Hurricane Irma threatened to strike the Sunshine State, members of the state’s tomato industry braved unfavorable forecasts and gathered on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico for their yearly meetings and conference.

More than 453 growers, packers, shippers and other industry members registered to attend the 42nd yearly conference, higher than last year. While some canceled ahead of the hurricane, which at the time was forecast to strike anywhere on the Florida peninsula, conference sessions were packed and the event saw many walk-ins, says Diana Hester, the committee’s compliance officer. On Sept. 7, the Category 5 hurricane was threatening cities up and down the Gulf Coast and East Coast including Georgia and the Carolinas.

A big part of the convention was honoring the service of Reggie Brown, the longtime manager of the Maitland, FL-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange. Brown plans to retire in late January and is scheduled to be succeeded by Michael Schadler, who joined in February as the committee’s deputy manager and the exchanges’ senior vice president.

During a Sept. 6 industry banquet, industry leaders paid tribute to Brown’s service. Tony DiMare, president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and vice president of the DiMare Co., in Homestead, FL, was on the search committee that hired Brown in 1989. “He’s been a stalwart in representing our industry in many difficult issues,” says DiMare. “The tomato industry is one of the toughest industries in fresh produce. He has been the face of our industry and represented us in a respectable fashion. He gets respect whether speaking with the FDA, the USDA or even our Mexican counterparts. He has worn many hats outside of the tomato industry and has herded all of the (diverse) personalities in our group.”

When Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, first arrived in Florida in 1992, he witnessed Brown, who then was FFVA’s director of marketing and membership, dress as “Captain Cart” in an effort to persuade pepper growers to adopt a new carton. “I have never met an individual who’s as passionate and dedicated to agriculture as Reggie,” he says. “Donald Trump would never call him a low-energy person.”

On Sept. 6, Brown provided an overview of the last tomato growing and packing season in his last State of the Industry address to growers during the Florida Tomato Institute sessions. For the 2016-17 season, which ended in June, Florida tomato packinghouses packed 32.8 million equivalent cartons of mature green tomatoes, up 4.6 million from the previous season. The average price received by growers was $8.01, the lowest average return the industry has received since the 2011-12 season, he says.

Brown lauded the industry’s dedication. “You collectively make up Team Tomato,” he says. “It’s all of you working together that will make a difference for the future of this tomato business. I attest to you that in my 18 years of working for the tomato committee, it has not been an easy task to survive and move forward in this business. But you all are making a difference and will continue to make a difference.”

Brown will likely remain available to provide growers counsel, says Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of the Fort Myers, FL-based Weis-Buy Farms Inc. “Reggie has been invaluable,” says Weisinger. “He came in at a very stressful time. Reggie’s been a great steward of the tomato industry. Reggie has helped the industry go through a lot of changes during his time as head of the tomato exchanges.”

A Florida native, Brown graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in vegetable crops with an agricultural economics undergraduate minor after serving in the U.S. Marines in 1969-71. He taught horticulture in North Carolina and was a multi-county extension agent for the Zellwood, FL, agricultural production region. He also worked for an agriculture chemical company and was Collier County extension director in 1982. Brown worked at FFVA 1988-99 before becoming the committee’s third manager.

Because of Irma, organizers ended the conference the evening of Sept. 6, a day earlier than usual.