Tomato growers evaluate domestic, export markets
By Kevin Hecteman
The California Tomato Growers Association held its annual conference in downtown Modesto. In addition to the trade show, the meeting featured a number of presentations on pests, pathogens and soil health as they apply to growers of processing tomatoes. One presentation also focused on labor issues, with respect to new wage laws.
Tomatoes are supposed to be good for you, so why did a hospital send patients home with instructions to avoid tomatoes?
Alec Wasson of the Tomato Products Wellness Council shared that story about the Nutrition Care Manual, which comes from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, during a presentation to the California Tomato Growers Association annual conference in Modesto—and noted that one patient who received the instructions came from a tomato-growing family.
"He came right to us and he said, 'This is crazy. Why would this be on here?'" Wasson said. "We got right on it."
Result: With the help of dietitian Sharon Palmer, a consultant to the Wellness Council, the manual is being updated, with the offending anti-tomato language and other outdated references being removed. The new manual is to be distributed to hospitals this year, Wasson said.
Wasson, whose job title is chief tomato evangelist, said he wants to see more victories for tomatoes in the marketplace.
"What we want to continue to do, and what you saw with the social media campaign, is we're trying to reach consumers and raise their awareness," he said. "Ultimately, our goal would be to actually increase consumption. It's such a huge market when you think we represent canned tomatoes, ketchup, salsa, soup, anything that has a cooked tomato used in it."
A big part of sales involves international trade, a hot topic on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. As CTGA President and CEO Mike Montna told the meeting, last year's presidential campaign was the first in recent memory in which trade was a top issue on both sides.
President Donald Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement; he also has expressed a desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
CTGA Chairman Bruce Rominger described that as a concern.
"U.S. agriculture—California in particular—really lives on exports," said Rominger, a fifth-generation farmer in western Yolo County. "A huge percentage of what we produce here is exported. When we have a strong dollar, our products become more expensive for all the other countries. So we have a really hard time moving stuff offshore, and that's hurt the tomato business. It's hurting a lot of commodities—corn, wheat— and that ripples all the way into California even if they're really Midwest crops."
It doesn't help that the processing-tomato market is in the midst of an adjustment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated last month that California tomato processors expect to have 11.6 million tons of processing tomatoes under contract in 2017, down 9 percent from last year. Inventories of tomato products have risen, due in part to record harvests in 2014 and 2015.
Rominger said growers are earning a break-even price on tomatoes at present.
"It used to be a good, profitable crop for us in our rotation," he said. "Not so right now."
Rominger also grows rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers and other crops.
Pests and pathogens also loom large among growers' concerns, and University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors spoke at the meeting to share their latest research and advice.
Fusarium wilt 3 is "pretty predictably going to be a problem again, just because it's soil-borne," said Brenna Aegerter, a UCCE farm advisor based in San Joaquin County. "We know it's still in the soil, and unfortunately I don't think the rain's going to help that."
Aegerter said the best solution at present is growing a tomato resistant to the pathogen.
"Growers need to connect with their seed retailer to find out what varieties are allowed for their processor that would be either tolerant or resistant to fusarium wilt," she said, adding that rotating out of tomatoes for two to three years helps, but "is not the solution."
Also discussed was a new strain of tomato spotted wilt virus that can infect previously resistant tomato varieties.
"When I started 10 years ago, spotted wilt was really bad for a number of years," Aegerter said. "Yes, we had an (integrated pest management) program to try to minimize the losses, but it really came down to these resistant (varieties). So now, if those resistant varieties aren't going to work anymore, it's going to be bad."
Aegerter said the virus had to rewrite a piece of its code to get around the tomato's resistance, and weakened itself in the process.
"That's the good news: It's not as strong as the old spotted wilt virus that we used to have," Aegerter said. "So that's good, but these fresh-market fields were damaged last year, so that potentially could happen in processing tomatoes. We really hope it doesn't."
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger gave the keynote address at last week's meeting. Wenger stressed the need for California's farmers and others in agriculture to pull together and advocate for themselves.
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.