N.C. farmers grow sales after outbreak

It's customers such as Erik Will – who turned to local farms to buy his produce after a salmonella outbreak sickened more than 800 people nationwide – that has turned the crisis into a boon for N.C. tomato farmers.

“First it was the spinach a few years ago, and now it's tomatoes,” said Will, 32. “It's enough to scare anyone off. I'm more than willing to pay more and make the trip to a market to know that what I'm eating is clean and safe.”

With North Carolina on the federal Food and Drug Administration's “safe list,” local growers say they are profiting from a situation that forced grocery stores to pull tomatoes from the shelves and left wholesalers with nothing to sell.

“There have definitely been more people who are wanting to eat locally after all this,” said Maria Fisher, owner of Fisher Farms in Richfield, which grows more than 25,000 tomato plants every year. “For us, that has meant more sales.”

Fisher said the outbreak has made customers more aware of where their food comes from. “They can know that the tomatoes they're buying from me were picked that same day,” she said. “What's safer than that?”

The FDA on Tuesday announced that it will test for a wider range of foods for the salmonella strain called Saintpaul. It reiterated its recommendation for people to avoid raw, red-plum, red-Roma and red-round tomatoes that aren't grown in a “safe” state.

North Carolina has five confirmed cases of salmonella caused by contaminated tomatoes, three of which were in Mecklenburg County, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Agency officials also said they are awaiting lab results for nine more cases of salmonella to see if they were caused by tomatoes.

Harris Teeter and Food Lion grocery stores have replaced potentially tainted tomatoes with produce from FDA-designated safe zones; the majority of those tomatoes come from South Carolina and Georgia.

Compass Group North America, a Charlotte-based company that supplies corporate, restaurant and cafeteria food, had to toss tomato stock in the recalls, at an estimated $25 to $30 a case.

Linda Gilardi, vice president of quality assurance for Compass Group, said the company issued red alerts to customers nationally after the outbreak. The company still hasn't been able to supply some of its customers with some tomatoes, she said.

“I wouldn't go as far to say that our sales would be down,” said Gilardi. “People are just enjoying their burgers like we are at home, without tomatoes.”

Jesse Reich, owner of Darla's Flower Farm in Cabarrus County, said if customers buy locally they don't have to do without. He said the farm, which sells tomatoes and other produce at local farmers markets, has also seen a spike in tomato sales.

“We don't use any sprays or chemicals,” he said. “People like to know that what they're eating is safe.”

The State Farmers Market in Raleigh is trying to sustain local consumer confidence: Last Friday it held a “tomato day,” with free tomato sandwiches and recipes. “Certainly there was a line,” said Brian Long, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department. “We're hoping people will look for tomatoes closer to home to make those sandwiches.”

Local farmers who export their produce hope clients in other states get the message that N.C. tomatoes are OK.

Randall Patterson, one of the state's largest tomato growers, said he has suffered a significant decrease in exports to Canada, New York and Puerto Rico.

“It has been a nightmare for us the past few weeks,” he said.

Tomatoes were the state's 18th-largest cash value commodity in 2006. They generated farm income worth $28 million. This year, farmers have planted 2,800 acres of tomatoes – most of which will be harvested by mid-September in Eastern North Carolina.

Curtis Smith, a farmer in Seven Springs, an hour southeast of Raleigh, planted three acres of tomatoes this year – and estimates that he's sold about 10 percent more to wholesale dealers and retailers since the outbreak.

Even so, he's done planting for this season and won't increase his yield because of the salmonella outbreak.

He estimated it costs him $3,000 to grow one acre of tomatoes, not including fertilizer costs. He would not say how much he makes from one acre of production.

“I'm not gonna have a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “Tomatoes are a very expensive crop to grow.”