He doesn’t want to grow the biggest tomato, as large-volume producers do; rather, Javier Torres has built his career in tomatoes by thinking differently.
“I tell the seed companies I don’t want the number one variety with the big yields and the disease package,” he says. “I’ll find a way to handle the diseases and those problems. What I need is a tomato that tastes good — what I’m doing is all about flavor, taste. If it doesn’t get big, that’s good; if it doesn’t gas well, that’s even better.”
Torres, 38 years old, owns a pair of Florida-based companies that produce and pack tomatoes, Tomato Thyme and Red Diamond Farms.
“We’re not trying to compete with the huge companies growing gassed green tomatoes,” he says. “We grow vine ripes. That’s what sets us apart from the others, and this market is growing very fast.”
It could also set his company apart from the greenhouse-grown Mexican tomatoes, whose reduced prices currently hammer most Florida tomato growers. His company grows Ruby Ripes, Tasti-Lees, grape tomatoes, flavorful peppers, and a bit of squash for rotation.
In 2012, he put big hopes on Tasti-Lees, the new release from the University of Florida. He grew them in the Homestead area, at Wimauma and, later in the season, at Quincy, in the Panhandle.
He then followed the production season northward, growing Tasti-Lees at Dayton, Tenn., Sylva, N.C., and at Old Fort, Ohio.
“They did really well; We’re still excited about them,” Torres says. “We have strong demand from new retailers coming on toward mid-December. We’re going to more than double our acreage of Tasti-Lees.”
His Florida production alone should total about 360 acres. He decided to move his south Florida production from Homestead to the western fringe of West Palm Beach, where soils are better for growing tomatoes, he says.
Once again, he’ll have fields in the Wimauma area and will follow last season’s growing pattern northward. In 2013, he will add Virginia’s Eastern Shore to the mix, where it is simple to ship tomatoes to New York City.
Torres also is part of a small group of growers and distributors who teamed on the new “Handy Candy” grape tomato that’s packaged in four-ounce resealable cups, making it easy for consumers to snack on them. Handy Candy LLC is a spin-off of Flavor-Pic Tomato Co., based in Birmingham, Ala.
“I want to give consumers what they want,” he says. “Tastes are changing and growers have to change, too. People say they want healthy snacks, so let’s give them some. Tomatoes are healthy — let’s make it easy for them to eat tomatoes.”
As consumers get ever more savvy about what they eat, success in the tomato business will focus on taste, Torres says.
“If you’re a consumer — and everybody is — I want to sell you something you like. We’ve got to sell taste. That’s why I like Tasti-Lees and why I like Ruby Ripes. The Ruby Ripes are bigger than cherry tomatoes, have good Brix, and they’re sweet. Once consumers taste them, they’ll be back for more.”
He began working in Florida’s tomatoes fields at age nine, joining his father, Leo Torres, and his brothers, picking the fruit as it began to color and ripen. His father bought tomatoes from the farmers, then marketed them at the Tampa farmers market or to roadside stands.
The family lived at Myakka City, east of Sarasota in Manatee County.
“My father was always self-employed,” Torres says. “This is what we did for a living. There were four of us. We were great pickers, great at harvesting tomatoes. We were the beginning of what’s called ‘pin-hookers,’ who did this kind of work. I still don’t know why we were called that — I should try to figure that out sometime.”
Started early in life
Torres got busy making an income earlyin life. He talks the subtleties of marketing like a university ag economics graduate, although he never attended high school. At age 15, he went to work in the Atlanta farmers market selling Florida tomatoes, and that served as a graduate school of sorts.
“I learned what customers wanted,” he says. “That’s the important thing — to sell them what they want, not try to force them to buy something they really don’t want.”
As a result, his tomato standards are high.
“Taste is the important thing, so I try for quality tomatoes. It’s important to hit a 7 on Brix. An 8.5 is better, but I can’t guarantee that. A lot of varieties are only 5, so if you’re growing one of those varieties, you’re not going to get the taste consumers want.
“I like Brix as a way to judge tomatoes. A lot of growers are used to letting the packinghouse do the selling for them. Since I grew up with tomatoes here in Florida and selling them in the Atlanta market, I knew both sides. So, I do both — I grow them and market them. It’s something I’m proud of.”
His vision for the company doesn’t encompass huge growth, even though acreage is doubling for the 2013 crop.
“I like being a smaller grower so I can control quality,” Torres says. “I’m a specialty grower —I’m not growing what all the other guys grow. I don’t want to be a commodity grower. We can’t compete with the big growers; for them, it’s all about the tonnage they produce.
“This may be a so-called niche market, but it’s becoming a good one.”