Processing tomato harvest proceeds well


Issue Date: August 5, 2015
By Ching Lee
Woolf Farming and Processing in Fresno County harvests a field of processing tomatoes. Due to favorable growing conditions this season, California farmers say crop yield and quality so far look good, with tomato production potentially matching last year’s record crop if water supplies hold out.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
A truck hauls a load of processing tomatoes from a field in Fresno County.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Tomatoes, ripen in a field prior to harvest, which is expected to last into October.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Excellent growing conditions so far this season have allowed California processing tomato growers to be on track for another robust production year similar to the 2014 crop. But dwindling water supplies in the state's key growing region of the San Joaquin Valley could still put some fields at risk and have complicated the logistics and costs of growing the crop.

The latest crop-intentions estimate from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, released in May, projected production at 14.3 million tons from 295,000 acres. That's up slightly from last year's record 14 million tons.

So far, weather has been cooperating, said Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, allowing growers to harvest record tonnage last week for this time of year. Processors have increased production capacity to accommodate more tomatoes.

"The overall crop looks really good right now," he said. "There's no reason to think we won't hit that (14.3 million-ton) number, but it's awful early. Wells going dry, weather conditions—those kind of things can obviously have an impact on the crop size going forward."

Even though the $80 per ton contract price for processing tomatoes is lower than the 2014 price of $83 a ton, it is still the second-highest price paid for the crop, Montna noted. Processors paid $80 a ton in 2009.

At that price, processing tomatoes is a "pretty good crop to grow" for farmers who have row-crop ground available and some water, said Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming and Processing in Fresno County.

His company grows and processes its own tomatoes, and also has contracts to grow for other processors. On his own farm, Woolf said he fallowed a third of his row-crop acreage in order to devote what available water he has to grow tomatoes, though he also cut back tomato plantings. He reduced his garlic and onion acreage as well, and didn't grow any wheat. To cover its own processing needs, the company contracted additional tomato acreage from outside growers.

While Woolf described the tomato price as "pretty good," he said farmers will not necessarily have "an incredibly profitable year growing tomatoes" because they are having to fallow land and absorb other costs associated with the drought, including pumping more groundwater.

"Even with higher prices, even with a good crop, in all likelihood tomato growers will see their margin shrink a bit," he said.

As a processor, his margins also will be squeezed because he has to pay more for tomatoes, Woolf noted. In addition, the higher-value dollar has made exports of California tomato products, largely tomato paste, less competitive in the global market, he added.

The tempered export outlook, he noted, led tomato processors to adjust downward the contracted tonnage they originally wanted farmers to produce this year—from 15 million tons to 14.3 million, with the current estimate closer to 14 million. Processors added capacity with hopes that exports would continue to grow, he said, "but it turns out in all likelihood they won't be" shipping more product.

With another big crop on the way and inventories building, Woolf said future prices for growers could soften, especially if tomato producers in countries such as Italy, Portugal and China also turn in a large crop.

While the drought presents water challenges for farmers, they tend to agree that crops such as tomatoes generally do well because the plants are less susceptible to mildew and fungal diseases that are more prevalent in wet years.

"Normally, yields are higher on a drought year than they are on a wet winter," said Steve Meek, who grows processing tomatoes in Yolo County.

His cost to grow tomatoes this year also did not increase much, he said, noting that while water costs are higher, the price of diesel is lower now than it was a year ago.

For Fresno County, the state's largest processing tomato-growing region, below-normal temperatures during the last two months likely resulted in better fruit set on late-season tomatoes, said Tom Turini, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor.

Although he described the region's groundwater quality as "lower than ideal," with boron levels high enough in some fields that they "could cause problems," he said any effect on tomato production would be minor.

"There are a few fields that may be suffering to some extent because of the salts, but I think largely our yields look very good at this time," Turini said.

Beet curlytop virus, which caused significant crop losses in 2013, turned up in fields again this year, with levels as high as 45 percent in portions of some fields, he said. But distribution of the disease, which is spread by the beet leafhopper, was closer to the foothills, not as widespread as it was two years ago, when it extended into the valley.

"The impact on yield is not going to be as substantial as it was in 2013—not even close," Turini said, noting that he is not aware of any fields that were left unfarmed because of the disease, whereas in 2013, some fields had to be abandoned early in the season.

After the 2013 outbreak, Turini said there was huge concern of a repeat this year because substantial rainfall in the foothills last December promoted growth of winter weeds that support the leafhopper. He credits an annual state program that treats the foothills where the leafhopper congregates for mitigating crop losses this year. Growers also took measures early in the season by treating their developing plants, he added.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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