STARKVILLE, Miss. — Frequent rains and cooler-than-normal temperatures have presented challenges for this year's Mississippi tomato crop, but consumers are finally enjoying the fruits of growers' labor.

Much of Mississippi's $3 million commercial tomato industry experienced delays in planting and slow growth early in the 2003 season. The good news is that cooler temperatures enabled plants to continue setting fruit longer than normal.

David Nagel, horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said several commercial tomato growers from previous years were unable to plant because of the wet conditions, but most were just delayed.

"The weather was so cool that the planting delays did not have a significant impact on yield potential. Normally, when temperatures start reaching the upper 90s, tomatoes stop setting fruit. This year, the plants were able to produce longer," Nagel said.

Mel Ellis of the Mayhew Tomato Farm in Lowndes County said the result of the cool temperatures has been a very good late crop.

"Our early crop was late, and we were running short on tomatoes at first. Our normal crop of late June and early July tomatoes came in the middle of July, but that later crop has managed to stay even with demand," Ellis said. "We like to keep plenty of tomatoes from the middle of June until the first frost."

In addition to the planting challenges and slow growth, farmers had to battle diseases attributed mostly to the excessive rains and humidity. Nagel and Ellis said disease pressure is normal every year, and this year's conditions have been favorable to bacterial and fungal growth.

Smith County, Miss., Extension director Charles Waldrup said tomato plants held up surprisingly well despite the disease pressure.

"Some growers had bacterial spot and bacterial wilt problems directly due to the rains and cloudy conditions that enhanced disease development. Bacterial diseases are very hard to control," Waldrup said. "Farmers have been doing an excellent job on fertility issues and with insect and disease control programs."

Waldrup said the fruit quality from the spring crop was very good. The traditionally smaller fall crop will begin ripening around the middle of August.

"Consumer demand for the first crop of tomatoes was unsteady. Despite that, prices were pretty strong for growers," Waldrup said.

Linda Breazeale writes for MSU Ag Communications.