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Tomato times they are a-changin’

Big-time growers, buyers put the hurt on Warren’s farms

This article was published June 25, 2013 at 12:23 a.m.


Terry Donnelly examines boxes packed with Deepwoods Farms tomatoes at a quiet Warren Tomato Market last week. Donnelly said farmers once crowded the market to sell tomatoes.

WARREN - Large growers and contractual farming have taken the energy from the Warren Tomato Market, turning the once-bustling auction into a quiet brokerage for a few family farms.

Terry Donnelly, who owns Deepwoods Farm with his wife, Julie, said more than 200 farmers once crowded the market to sell tomatoes to buyers from across the region. Now, he said, there are only 10 to 15 farmers and one buyer to fill a structure nearlytwo football fields in length.

“I enjoy doing this. I love this. I used to make money at it,” he said. “Most guys just quit because they couldn’t make enough money. Everything’s tripled, labor’s tripled. Tomato prices have stayed the same.”

Donnelly grimaces as he looks at his tomatoes. For someone who takes great pride in his crop, the changes have been hard to stomach.

“I’ve sat up here on the Fourth of July with a thousand boxes, and no one wanted to buy them,” Donnelly said. “You’ve got to sell them because you’ve got another 1,000 boxes waiting in the field the next day.”

For decades, the market functioned as a bustling auction that sold tomatoes to buyers and distributors. Farmers in pickups dominated one end of the market. In a building near the loading docks, auctioneers would sell pallets of tomatoes to the highest bidder. Buyers had tractor-trailers parked on the other side of the property, ready to transport tomatoes to stores and restaurants.

John Gavin, the University of Arkansas Agriculture Division’s cooperative extension agent staff chair for Bradley County, said the auction had ended by 2000 as chain grocery stores cut out the middle man and starting contracting directly with large growers. The building that housed the auction now stores empty tomato boxes.

“In the auction, there was competition, but it was a roller-coaster ride,” he said. “With the contracts, farmers know they’re getting a set amount. That helps the farmer too.”

The auction years were better for small farmers because buyers competed for the farm’s tomatoes, Julie Donnelly said.

“It was kind of a magical thing,” she said. “All of these people could farm on a small scale and make money. Now in the U.S., there’s basically nothing you can grow on a small scale to make a significant amount of money.”

Though the big farms don’t need the Warren market, Gavin said, smaller farms still need to go through through a buyer to reach larger stores.

Wonia Proffer, co-owner of Proffer Wholesale Produce, said her family has been buying tomatoes at the Warren Tomato Market since 1964. Now, Proffer is the the only buyer.

“Back in the day, we would drop a few boxes off here and there. Now, we sell strictly by the pallet,” she said. “When it was the full-flavored tomato and mom and pop stores, we weren’t so much at market mercy. You could name your own price back then.”

The market is now driven by the efficiency that comes with larger operations, Proffer said. Chain stores have separate buyers for all different types of produce, but still hope to carry shipments on one truck. That causes Arkansas tomato farmers to face increased competition from Mexico and Florida.

“It’s more corporate,” she said. “I’m not sure we’ve improved, but times change.”

Missouri-based Proffer Wholesale Produce buys different varieties of produce from nine states and Mexico, Proffer said.

While most farmers have tried to cut production costs and increase yields to compete, the Donnelly family is reducing the number of acres they farm and branching out into different tomato varieties.

The farm’s heirloom tomatoes are what most Americans would have been eating about 70 years ago, Julie Donnelly said. They’re sweeter and come in purple, orange, red and yellow. They lack the genetic mutation found in most tomatoes that trade uniform color for sweeter taste.

“I just love them. They’re beautiful. They’re exotic to me,” she said. “We want people to know that tomatoes come in many different sizes and shapes and colors.”

The tomatoes are not disease resistant and are prone to cracking, but Donnelly said they haven’t been problematic since they started growing them about five years ago.

The price they command makes them worthwhile, she said. The heirloom tomatoes go for four times the price of the average tomato.

“Heirlooms just are bringing so much more money right now,” she said. “They’re delicate. They’re harder to grow, but we’re willing to put in the time and effort and see how that goes.”

In Little Rock, Deepwoods Farm’s heirloom tomatoes can be found in Whole Foods and in restaurants such as Loca Luna. Demand isn’t high for the heirloom tomatoes in the state, Donnelly said, but she’s trying to spread the word.

“We’ve lost our way with what this area was all about and what was expected to come from small, local farms down here,” she said. “We’ve got to get back to flavor and taste and the unique product that we used to grow.”

Business, Pages 21 on 06/25/2013

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