At Ruskin tomato festival, a celebration of days gone by

- It’s a small town in Hillsborough County with deep roots in agriculture.  This Saturday, the Ruskin Tomato and Heritage Festival celebrates the local history and the area’s famous tomatoes.  The event has been held off and on throughout the years since the 1930’s.

“It’s gonna be a lot of fun, people should come out and have a good time with us,” said Jennifer McCafferty with the Ruskin Community Development Foundation.

Organizers expect about 5,000 people to come out for the music, games, tomato-themed events, and, of course, to buy ripe, juicy tomatoes.

“It’s based on the heritage of Ruskin,” continued McCafferty.  “Which, at one time, was one of the largest tomato growers in the state of Florida.”

The company Tomatoes of Ruskin has been growing, picking and packing tomatoes in the area for nearly 50 years.  Business used to be booming.

“Twenty years ago there was probably 55 growers in this area and there were five major packing houses,” said Tomatoes of Ruskin owner Frank Diehl.

But these days, it’s a shriveling industry. There are only two local packing houses left, and farmland that used to churn out bumper crops of tomatoes has been sold to developers. 

Just 10 years ago, Tomatoes of Ruskin used to produce around three-million boxes full of tomatoes each season.  Now that’s down about 50 percent.

“As the years have passed, we had more and more competition from out of the country,” Diehl said.  “People who used to use out product are getting them from other places because they can get them cheaper.”

He says growers can’t compete with foreign tomatoes flooding the market and driving down prices.
Those economics, combined with weather issues and a lack of demand, has forced farms to fold in the area.

The ones left in Ruskin are seriously concerned about surviving.

“If there’s something not done for us through NAFTA, through some kind of regulation from our government, we’re gonna all be out of business. And it’s not gonna be long,” said Diehl.

There will be hundreds of Florida tomatoes at the festival Saturday, but most of them weren’t grown there in Ruskin.

IF YOU GO:

The Ruskin Tomato & Heritage Festival runs from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. April 28 at E.G. Simmons Park.  There will be a tomato queen pageant, a children’s tomato-eating contest, live music, tomato dishes and fresh tomatoes for sale. 

LINK: For more information: www.facebook.com/RuskinTomatoFestival

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