Bad weather in California and other growing areas of the West is raising produce costs that already had increased steadily after hurricanes destroyed crops last year.

“The prices are all weather-related,” said Dan Corsaro, a vice president with an Indianapolis company that supplies produce to the Terre Haute area. “The demand is outstripping the supplies and transportation costs continue to be a problem. We have to build it into the cost of doing business.”

In Rockville, tomato lovers will be paying $3.99 a pound for the vine-ripened fruit. Last year at this time, the same quality tomato cost $2.99, said Carl Howard of the U.S. 41 IGA produce department. He said green bell peppers cost $1.99 apiece today, but only 99 cents this time last year.

“From what we are told, it’s all weather-related,” Howard said.

Steve Nasser, owner of Mike’s Market and two convenience stores, raised the price of tomatoes Tuesday from $1.99 per pound to $2.49 while his supplier advised him to sell them for $3.59 a pound, he said.

“On Saturday, we paid $42.25 for a 20-pound case of tomatoes,” he said Tuesday. “Today we paid $50.25. We aren’t going to make anything on tomatoes. We’ll have to throw five or six away. You lose about 20 to 40 percent of the produce you buy.”

Nasser said all business is based on simple economics, supply and demand. He said the high prices won’t last long.

“When tomatoes get that high, people quit buying them,” he said. “Produce is hard. The cost is so high and the vegetables and fruits don’t hold up. Spoilage is a factor for small independent groceries like me.”

Restaurants are feeling the price spike, too.

At Wendy’s at Third and Walnut streets, customers won’t get a slice of tomato on a sandwich unless they request it, according to a sign taped to the cash register.

“The hurricanes in Florida and other areas have had a serious impact on the quality and availability of tomatoes,” the sign said. “Therefore, for a short period of time, we will offer them by request only.”

Supply isn’t the only problem with tomatoes.

“Our problem is quality, so tomatoes will be available by request only for a few weeks,” said Kitty Muncer, Wendy’s manager of communications, from her Dublin, Ohio office.

At Boo’s Crossroads Cafe at Seventh and Wabash Avenue, owner Boo Lloyd will reduce the number of slices of tomato on a sandwich.

“We have never charged extra for lettuce, tomato or onion,” she said. “We ask the customer and then add what they request. The worst thing about the high prices for produce is the quality. Tomatoes are not the greatest quality.”

Paul Engle, produce manager for Baesler’s Market on Poplar Street, said prices began to soar about a month ago.

Weather problems, including the hurricane, and damage to Florida crops started the problem, Engle said. He said there is a trickle-down effect in the produce market based on factors involving transportation and weather. Diesel prices went up so transportation costs are much higher.

“California is having trouble now with the strawberry crops,” he said. “The old law of supply and demand keeps getting in the way of prices.”

Engle worked for the Wabash Commission, a locally owned and operated fruit and vegetable distributor for more than 23 years. When it shut down, he was hired by Baesler’s to manage its produce department, he said.

“We sell hydroponic, vine ripe and cluster tomatoes for $2.99 a pound and are selling Roma tomatoes for $1.99,” Engle said. We aren’t making any money on the Romas. It’s our way to say ‘I’m sorry’ and it’s something here to make up for the increased prices a little bit.”

Engle said quality is lacking compared with the tomatoes sold during the summer months. Fewer tomatoes are available, so some are being picked and shipped before they are ready and while they are still pink, he said.

Supplies are not meeting demand, Corsaro said. “The only way to slow demand down is to raise the price,” he said.

A new crop of tomatoes and other vegetables produced in Florida and southern states is on its way, Corsaro said.

“We expect the new crop of tomatoes from the hurricane areas to come in at the end of this month. “[As of] now, the tomatoes are coming from California and Mexico.”



Patricia Pastore can be reached at (812)231-4271 or pat.pastore@tribstar.com.

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