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Joe Bernardi: Heavy supplies define Mexico’s tomato deal, resulting prices

It’s been a rough year price-wise for sellers of tomatoes grown in Mexico this winter as supplies have been plentiful and the price has rarely moved upward.

“The market has been stuck at the minimum all season,” said Joe Bernardi, president of Bernardi & Associates Inc. The firm is headquartered in Nogales, AZ, though the president was found in the firm’s Lodi, CA, office on this early February day. “I just made a plane reservation to go down to Nogales in a couple of weeks,” he said, noting that he has changed his typical travel pattern in the last couple of years because his son is in high school. For years, the Bernardi family spent half the year in California’s San Joaquin Valley and the other half in southern Arizona as Joe followed the tomato crop, and his kids split the school year between the two locales. But high school is a different ball game and so the family is staying in the Lodi area for the entire school year this season.

 Cal-Baja-Bernardi-JoeJoe BernardiBut that perch is not giving Bernardi any nicer view of the current tomato market. “It’s been a tough season. Mexican growers suffered through November, December and January and Florida has struggled as well,” he said. “It has not been a good tomato deal. Markets have been extremely cheap.”

Bernardi was not certain of the explanation but believes growers are just getting more and more efficient, and are seeing their yields increase. So without weather problems cutting into supplies, an oversupply situation is the result. Unfortunately, his crystal ball sees no change in that pattern. “We’ve had optimal weather conditions [in Mexico] so I don’t see supplies diminishing.”

In fact, he noted that Mexican growers could send more product to the U.S. market if there was even a hint of better pricing. Currently they are diverting supplies to Mexico’s domestic market, where the market price is even lower.

Though much of Bernardi’s business is to foodservice and wholesaler accounts, he lamented that retailers aren’t helping to stimulate movement with low prices and big promotions. “Back in the old days, when the market was low you could always find a couple of retailers to drop the price and improve the market by moving a lot of product. Now it seems retail has its price points at which they are going to move a certain amount a product and hit their numbers. They don’t seem interested in doing a lot more. It’s a shame because it hurts the industry.”

Bernardi marveled at how the avocado industry is constantly promoting that fruit and, as a result, has seen huge sales gains in recent years. “They are constantly marketing to consumers. We [the tomato industry] should be doing that.”

In the meantime, Bernardi & Associates continues to try and make a living through its business model of “having eyes on the ground in five or six districts every day.” The company is primarily a tomato broker, offering its customers first-hand knowledge of tomato supplies and quality from each district where they are sourced throughout the year. With several satellite and seasonal offices, it is the value proposition that the firm trades on.