Tomato farmers expect improved yields and prices


Issue Date: June 20, 2012
By Steve Adler
The Houlding brothers—Bob, Mike and Jerry—show the various stages of maturity of processing tomatoes in one of their fields in Fresno County. Bob Houlding said harvest should begin around July 10 on their farm.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman
These cutaway sections of processing tomatoes show three different stages of maturity. Forecasters estimate California farmers could harvest 12.9 million tons of processing tomatoes this year..
Photo/Lisa Lieberman

With harvest set to kick off in less than a month, there's an overall feeling of optimism on the part of processing tomato growers, who are looking at a three-ton per acre yield increase from last year and a slight increase in price per ton.

Planted acreage under contract this year totals 260,000 acres, an increase of about 6,000 acres, but total production has been estimated by the National Agricultural Statistics Service at 12.9 million tons, a million-ton increase from 2011.

Adding to the optimism are reports that crop sizes are down in other growing areas around the globe, which is expected to create more export opportunities for U.S. processing tomatoes. The United States leads in worldwide production with about one-third of the total. The two other major players—Italy and China—each have about 14 percent, with a number of other countries producing the rest.

"The world crop is down about 2 million metric tons from last year. This will reduce world inventories," said Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association. "World consumption is continuing to increase, so there will be export opportunities for California moving forward."

California farmers will earn $69 per ton of processing tomatoes this year, compared to $68 per ton last year.

"Overall, it is a slight increase over last year, and recognizing market conditions and growers' cost increases, it was a fair and reasonable compromise," Montna said.

Fresno County remains the top county for contracted acres planted with 97,000, with Yolo, San Joaquin, Kern and Kings making up the rest of the top five counties. Together, these counties account for 76 percent of the state's production.

Although the crop got off to a late start this year due to cool temperatures and late rains, the weather in subsequent weeks has been favorable for fruit production. Harvest is projected to start around July 10 in the San Joaquin Valley and then proceed northward to the Sacramento Valley, where harvest is expected to begin in late July.

Tomatoes, grown 95 percent from transplants, have staggered plantings to extend the harvest over a period of weeks rather than having all of the fruit come off at the same time, creating potential bottlenecks at processing plants.

The weather has been very cooperative this year, according to Bob Houlding, who with his brothers Mike and Jerry have been growing processing tomatoes on the west side of Fresno County for nearly 40 years.

"Normally, we would start harvest on the 10th of July, give or take a couple days, and it looks about the same this year depending on the weather over the next few weeks," he said. "We stagger our planting dates. With the acreage that we have, we plant the tomatoes in stages so the fields are harvested one after another."

Houlding said the tomatoes in his area have not had any significant pest or disease problems and he hasn't had to treat for anything. He said his biggest concern is the potential loss of yields that could be caused by extremely high temperatures.

"Tomatoes are a perishable crop, so an extended period of extreme heat will hurt production. If there are short bursts of heat followed by normal temperatures, the tomatoes can recover, but long stretches of heat will start pulling the plants down. The fruit will stop sizing, so it could affect yields, depending on how hot it is and the duration of the heat," he said.

Gene Miyao, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor based in Woodland, said some growers in the Sacramento Valley have had to deal with tomato spotted wilt virus, but that there has not been a reccurrence of the bacterial speck that affected yields in many fields last year.

"More recently, these high temperatures and low humidity are creating some plant stress. Hopefully, the plants will be well watered and are able to withstand the high temperatures, but we are likely to lose some fruit set because of the heat," he said.

Yolo County grower Bruce Rominger said the crop in his area is coming along nicely after initial difficulties.

"The planting was a little challenging and we were slightly late," he said. "Some other growers got in later than us. We managed to get in between some rainstorms. Our irrigation district has some capacity challenges as far as delivering the water when growers wanted it. So there were waiting lists for awhile, but overall there is enough water in storage for all our crops. It was just a matter of not being able to get it exactly when we needed it, but I think that is getting better now."

Rominger said that because he will be harvesting earlier than many other growers in his area, he doesn't anticipate any problems in hiring enough people. Houlding, on the other hand, isn't quite so confident.

"In the beginning, everyone wants to work because this is pretty much the first harvest that comes on," he said. "But as almonds come on and the grapes come on, we start having more problems because some employees want to stick closer to home, plus gas prices are high. There are a lot of factors there."

When his farm runs all four of its harvesters, Houlding said, it needs about 40 people on the harvesting crews, not including the truck drivers hauling the gondolas to the processors.

"I look for this to be a bigger problem this coming year than it was last year," he said.

But it is water availability that Houlding cites as his biggest concern.

"I am baffled by the reports that I get that all of the reservoirs are over 100 percent of historical average and we are getting 40 percent water. In 2009, we were at 10 percent water, so we had to leave more than 1,000 acres out of production and not plant any crops on them. Something is wrong with this picture," he said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

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