US taste for the tomato

Americans' appetite for the tomato, dubbed the ''love apple'' a few centuries back, continues to grow. Fresh tomatoes flow into salad bars and supermarkets like a beneficent red tide. Nearly every state grows its own in the summer, while seed sales for backyard gardens have risen steadily over the past decade.

When frost terminates the summer growing season in northern climes, the popular ''fresh'' gap is filled with fall, winter, and spring tomatoes from Florida. And what a bounty! Annual harvests in Florida's warm, sunny fields have passed the billion pound mark.

A recent study, prepared by the Florida Tomato Exchange, shows that tomato plant yield and consumer demand have risen dramatically over the past 15 years, while the acreage under cultivation has remained fairly steady.

In 1969-70, for example, Florida's growers packed 425 million pounds of tomatoes. Acreage at that time totaled 46,500. This past season, tillers were pulled over 45,400 acres, yet Americans had an amazing 1.14 billion pounds of tomatoes laid before them.

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