Florida Growers Get Bruised by Cheap Mexican Tomatoes

PAUL DIMARE is in a stew about tomatoes -- Mexican tomatoes.

The Florida farmer has watched as Mexican growers have captured a huge share of the US market for winter tomatoes. The reason: The drop in the Mexican peso has made produce grown south of the border much cheaper. Now Florida growers, who are the nation's largest producers of fresh tomatoes, are asking the federal government for financial relief and protection.

''Our shipping has gone down 30 to 40 percent,'' says Mr. DiMare, whose farm rests on the vast flat expanse on the edge of the Florida Everglades.

In addition to tomatoes, DiMare Homestead, Inc., raises and ships cucumbers, squash, corn, and beans and employs between 1,500 and 2,000 workers.

Farmers say the lower wages, among other factors, shrink Mexican production costs to levels US tomato growers just can't match. ''They've been dumping on us. There are laws on the books to prevent that,'' DiMare says.

The winter tomato season for farmers here is January through March. ''We are down to half the staff we used to have,'' he says.

Prices have been halved, too. In January a 25-pound box of tomatoes sold for up to $14 in the US. The price now is about $7.

The US market share for tomato farmers in Florida dropped from 73 percent in January 1993 to less than 36 percent in January this year.

Farmers here want the Clinton administration to provide relief. They call for replacing the current annual ceiling on tomato imports from Mexico with a monthly or even weekly limit.

US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor agreed to look into the complaints and has written to Mexican officials, his office says.

But any action the government takes now may be too late for this year's crop. The winter tomato season for farmers here is almost over.

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