Tomato harvest slowly gains momentum


Issue Date: August 2, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
A harvester makes its way through a Woolf Farming tomato field near Huron. Many processing-tomato growers are starting harvest later than usual, because heavy rains pushed planting schedules back. According to USDA statistics, 11.8 million tons of processing tomatoes are under contract, growing on 235,000 acres.
Photo/Lee Henriksen
Processing-tomato harvest started in early July in the southern growing regions, including Fresno and Kern counties, where Huron-based Woolf Farming is busy pulling tomatoes off the vines. Harvesting in northern areas of the state began late last month. Heat waves in June and July may have had an effect on the crop; exactly how much won’t be known until harvest.
Photo/Lee Henriksen

It's a slow but good start so far for the 2017 processing tomato harvest.

A lot of roadblocks stand between the tomatoes and the marketplace, including spring rains that delayed planting, June and July heat waves whose effects have yet to be determined, and the strong dollar holding down exports.

In its most recent report, issued two months ago, the California Department of Food and Agriculture revised upward the amount of tomatoes under processor contract, from 11.6 million tons to 11.8 million. Acreage remains the same, at 235,000. The California Tomato Growers Association estimates the yield will be 50.2 tons per acre.

"Most people think it's going to be closer to 11 (million tons) than 12 right now," said Mike Montna, president and CEO of the CTGA. "It's still relatively early in the season. The northern area really just got going."

Most harvest activity is taking place in the southern growing region, where harvest began July 6. Last year's harvest began nearly two weeks earlier, on June 24, according to CTGA. Harvest in the northern region began less than two weeks ago, Montna said.

Paul Sanguinetti, who grows tomatoes in San Joaquin County, said no one is harvesting in his area yet and he doesn't expect to start until around Sept. 10.

"All the tomatoes are going to be late," he said. "Some of the canneries didn't start till this week."

Sanguinetti explained that the canneries depend on a daily diet of tomatoes to avoid shutdowns.

"If they get a gap in there where they don't have any ripe tomatoes, they have to shut down," he said. "They don't want that. So they started later, and (they're) hoping they can just run straight through."

Tomato plants are developing well so far, Sanguinetti said, with no major insect or disease pressures to speak of.

"The crops look good, but we don't know on some of them because they're just making the tomato crop now," he said. "It's hard to tell. (It will) be another month before we tell what kind of a crop we're going to have."

Toward the southern end of the valley, Daniel Hartwig was watching the thermometer.

"They can kind of go over the hill on you real quick when it gets real hot," said Hartwig, procurement manager for Woolf Farming in Huron.

Hartwig's employer began harvesting tomatoes in Fresno and Kern counties the week of July 7.

As with many others, Hartwig said the farm has been working to cope with a shortage of available employees. In his case, his company is making use of mechanical sorters as part of the harvest work, much of which is already mechanized.

"Used to be, years ago, that you'd have six machine riders, and now we're down to using a couple," Hartwig said. "The automation side has certainly helped us out on the labor front."

The base price being paid to growers this year stands at $70.50 per ton, down nearly $10 from two years ago, which Montna of the tomato growers association attributed to an oversupply of tomatoes and the strong dollar overseas.

"You've seen a reduction in tons over the last few years, and it's just an effort to balance supply and demand," Montna said. "The dollar strengthening three years ago just slowed the export trend down. We're just trying to realign in the current marketplace."

Sanguinetti said the price worries him.

"That's about a break-even price," he said. "It's going to be one of those years we just hope we break even."

August began with more triple-digit temperatures and promises to bring even more, which concerns Sanguinetti.

"Warm weather is good for tomatoes," Sanguinetti said. "Hot weather is not."

The century mark is the breaking point, he added.

"It's like you on a hot day," Sanguinetti said. "Don't you feel like doing nothing on a hot day? Well, the tomato plant does the same thing. It just doesn't want to do anything."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.