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Gem Tomato sees challenges of changing tomato landscape

Gem Tomato Sales Inc. dates back to 1982 and now has offices in Arkansas, Florida and Michigan, marketing and promoting fresh market vine-ripened summertime tomatoes.

It wasn’t that long ago when Arkansas tomatoes were marketed mostly through the auction system — and they were popular — as Arkansas has been recognized as a traditional starting point for the summertime vine-ripened harvest season.wendell-toms-wendell-big-toms2015DSC 0308 Wendell Moffatt spends countless hours walking the fields monitoring plant conditions every day.

Gem Tomato has led the movement of direct marketing for Arkansas’ popular tomato varieties and offers quality vine-ripened tomatoes such as Rounds and Romas.

“For 35 years, I have specialized in summer field-grown vine ripened tomatoes,” said Gary Margolis, president of the company. “In some cases, I have worked with the same growers for multiple generations in Arkansas and Michigan.”

While he calls many of these growers “dedicated and conscientious,” he admitted that they continue to face an uphill battle because the industry is rapidly changing.

“It’s a tough industry and has been uphill for a while,” Margolis said. “There’s increasing input costs, rising costs of everything to grow a tomato crop, and most importantly, labor issues. Uncertainty if you have enough labor if you do grow a crop makes it difficult for farmers to make proper decisions.”

A third big factor Margolis has seen in the last decade that is affecting the tomato industry is the increase in the production of greenhouse projects around the country, especially in the Midwest.

“They are built to take advantage of the locally grown movement, which has really kept my field-grown growers alive for the last decade thanks to an increased demand for local,” Margolis said. “Now we’re finding this competition from greenhouse growers that are setting up in regional areas and promoting their locally grown product. So, when a consumer goes in a store and pick up a bag of on-the-vine tomatoes, and it says ‘Grown in Arkansas or Grown in Michigan,’ it is, but I am not sure consumers realize it is grown in hydroponic greenhouses.”

That has led to more tomatoes available today than at any time in Margolis’ career, and an abundance of varieties that make it more difficult to identify the classic summertime tomatoes.

“I think consumers are concerned about the future of family farms, but in many cases, they don’t realize where the product is coming from,” he said. “I think they would support the local growers more if retailers would identify them better.”

It’s a problem that Margolis said many in the industry have wrestled with, and while demand is expected to continue for tomatoes, he’s unsure if it will be enough to sustain a family-farm operation.

“My growers continue to cut back acreage in the summer, and in some cases, seasonal growers in the U.S. have thrown in the towel because they can’t compete,” Margolis said. “In Florida, there has been a steady decline.”

Recently, there has been an increased interest in summertime tomatoes from customers, which may be due to the uncertainty of imports, but Margolis noted many growers are facing some hard decisions about what the future holds.

“I have recommended to many that they cut back and in some cases, for growers who don’t have a young generation to follow, that they consider moving in another direction,” Margolis said. “The average age of growers is getting older and there’s not a lot of young people who want to get into this business. It’s just too difficult and too much risk.”

On a more positive note, Margolis is excited about this upcoming tomato season in Arkansas and his growers are expected to start in early June. Though acreage is down 10-20 percent this year, he’s optimistic about the beauty of the crop.

But he knows that things are changing fast.

“We have loyal customers, but the way the industry has been moving, you just don’t know what the marketing circumstances are going to be,” he said. “My forecast is that the Arkansas guys are in a good position because their marketing window is unique. Consumers are hungry for these tomatoes, so I’m hopeful for a good season.”