A native of Massachusetts, Paul DiMare grew up in the family produce business and expanded its operations to production and distribution locations in Florida and throughout the U.S.
Over time, he became the largest tomato farmer in the U.S., and was known by his nickname, “Mr. Tomato.”
As a result of his success as a tomato and vegetable farmer, DiMare has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
Though he has cut back on tomato production in recent years, he and his companies remain major U.S. players in growing and marketing tomatoes and other produce.
DiMare lives in Coral Gables, Fla., and has production facilities in South Florida and California. He and his companies own additional packing, repacking and distribution facilities in several states. He and his family own and operate packing facilities in Florida, California, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. DiMare repacking facilities also reach nationwide markets while providing peppers, cucumbers, squash and other vegetables in consumer-friendly packaging. “We buy a lot of different vegetables and repack them to containers that consumers will buy in their grocery stores,” he says.
He traces the start of his family’s vegetable business to the 1920’s, when his dad and his dad’s two brothers started selling vegetables from a pushcart on the streets of Boston. The brothers started farming in the 1940’s.
DiMare has been a farmer for 62 years. He moved to Florida in 1964. The first year he farmed, he grew his crops on 150 acres of rented land. His farming operations now encompass 1,350 acres of owned land.
Tomatoes have always been and remain the main crop that DiMare produces. He says good per acre tomato yields are about 1,500 to 1,600 of the 25-pound boxes. “Our tomatoes yield more in the spring and less in the winter,” he notes. Recently, his tomatoes yielded only 1,200 boxes per acre, mainly due to weather setbacks. It costs $10,000 or more per acre to grow tomatoes, according to DiMare.
He counts virus diseases transmitted by insects among the biggest production challenges in growing tomatoes.
DiMare’s farm was one of the first in the U.S. to use methyl bromide to fumigate soil for growing tomatoes. “Fumigation helped us triple our yields,” he recalls. Methyl bromide has since been removed from the market, and DiMare says replacement fumigants aren’t near as effective.
He was also one of the earliest adopters of plastic mulch and drip irrigation which are now standard practices for efficient large scale tomato farming. In addition, DiMare’s farms were among the earliest users of solid set irrigation for freeze protection.
DiMare’s most recent production innovations include investments in organic and greenhouse tomatoes.
In previous years, he was a major grower of tomatoes in Pennsylvania and on John’s Island near Charleston in South Carolina.
Imported tomatoes and other produce have cut into the markets for U.S.-grown vegetables, according to DiMare. “We’re only growing a third of what we used to farm, mainly due to imports from Mexico and Canada,” he adds.
He says that U.S. vegetable crops that are planted often go unpicked due to labor shortages. “We need people to pick our crops, and our agricultural labor problems need to be fixed,” he adds.
If current trends in food imports and labor shortages continue, DiMare warns that food production for U.S. consumers will essentially become outsourced to foreign providers.
While other large produce growers typically hire brokers to handle sales, DiMare says family members handle his sales.
“We are vertically integrated,” says DiMare. “That means we can control the growing, packing, selling, re-packing and distribution of the food we grow.”
Paul and his wife Swanee are known for their community service, volunteer work and philanthropy. They are major donors to the University of Miami, homeless shelters, paralysis research, public broadcasting and other worthy causes. Paul has also funded tomato breeding at the University of Florida.
Paul is active in a number of organizations. He was recognized as Agriculturist of the Year by Dade County Farm Bureau. He received the Martin Luther King, Jr. award from the Homestead and Florida City Human Relations Board. He was named Outstanding Agricultural Employer by the Mexican-American Council. He has been inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southeast Produce Council. He was also named American Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year in 2007.
He has been a director of 1st National Bank of South Florida. He’s a member of the board of the American Red Cross of Greater Miami and The Keys. He also serves on the University of Miami Board of Trustees.
He has served as president of the Florida Tomato Committee and has chaired the Florida Tomato Exchange. He is co-founder and chairman of Florida Farmers, Inc., an organization that advocates on behalf of trade policies such as country of origin labeling. He has been a strong supporter of Farm Share, an organization that fights hunger through its food distribution networks.
Swanee had a promising career in management at Delta Air Lines. Now, she serves on the boards of the Miami City Ballet, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Foundation, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium and the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. On the national level, Swanee is an active supporter of the Women of Tomorrow and American Red Cross organizations.
Paul and Swanee have five sons. Anthony DiMare is vice president of DiMare Florida packinghouse operations. Paul DiMare, Jr., spent a number of years overseeing the Homestead farms. Scott DiMare oversees farms in Ruskin, Immokalee, Myakka and greenhouses in Apollo Beach. The youngest son, Gino DiMare is a University of Miami Hurricanes baseball coach. Paul’s stepson Jim Husk currently manages the Homestead farm.
Mike Rogalsky with Florida Farm Bureau coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. DiMare was nominated for the honor by Eva Webb, area organization director with Florida Farm Bureau. Webb says, “Mr. DiMare is one of the most respected growers in the area and is well known for his innovative farming techniques and forward thinking. He represents the past and the future of the tomato industry. I can think of no one who better represents the purpose of this award.” Jorge Abreu, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, says he appreciates all that DiMare does for the local community.
DiMare says, “We need to improve the taste and the color of the tomatoes we grow, but the demand for tomatoes will increase. Tomatoes are now being used as a breakfast food. And it’s still true that a sandwich without a tomato is as dry as it can be.”
As the Florida state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, DiMare will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from
Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply and a smoker-grill from Hays LTI.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 27th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,040,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010; Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011; Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012; John Scott Long of Palm City, 2013; C. Dennis Carlton of Tampa, 2014; and Vic Story, Jr., of Lake Wales.
Florida has had seven overall winners: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; and Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit DiMare’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 1-5. The judges for this year are Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist of Maryville, Tenn.; farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; and Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.
Note to media: The judges will visit DiMare’s farm on Aug. 1 from 1:30-4:30 p.m. If you would like to visit the farm during the final two hours of judging, call John Leidner at 229-392-1798, or contact him by email at [email protected], or contact DiMare by calling 305-245-4211.