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Yields will be key to tomato farmers’ profits

Issue Date: May 18, 2011
By Steve Adler
San Joaquin County tomato grower Paul Sanguinetti checks on tomato transplants that he is planting on 700-plus acres in the Stockton area. This year for the first time, his entire crop will be planted on double row 80-inch beds.
Photo/Steve Adler
Like most processing tomato growers in California, Paul Sanguinetti of Stockton is using transplants on 100 percent of his acreage this year.
Photos/Steve Adler

Photos/Steve Adler

After some late spring delays due to intermittent rainstorms, the planting of processing tomatoes in the Central Valley is nearly complete as growers put in acreage in an amount that is similar to last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, in its mid-April forecast, projected planting contract intentions this year of 268,000 acres, compared to 269,000 contracted acres last year. Projected yield is 12.6 million tons, compared to last year's production of almost 12.3 million tons.

"The next report is supposed to come out in May. I think the general belief is that the projection is going to be less than what it was in the April report, but we'll see," said Mike Montna, president/chief executive officer of the California Tomato Growers Association.

Montna added that negotiations with major processors have resulted in a price to growers of $68 per ton, compared to last year's price of $65 per ton. This accounts for about 70 percent of the projected crop and negotiations are continuing for the remaining crop, he said.

Because of increased costs of inputs such as fuel, fertilizer, chemicals and labor, the net return to growers would likely be about the same as last year, he said.

But it all comes down to yields.

"It's always going to depend on yield, but we've already seen a big wave of these cost increases," Montna said.

San Joaquin County tomato grower Paul Sanguinetti agreed that yield is what determines the bottom line as to whether a farmer has a profitable growing season. Sanguinetti, who farms with his son David, said that the 700-plus acres of processing tomatoes that they are planting are all on 80-inch beds with two rows of plants per bed. This is a change from the previous method of one row of plants on 60-inch beds.

"This is the first year we planted 100 percent 80-inch double row. We have more plants to the acre and we are hoping to get more tonnage," he said. "We had been planting everything on 60-inch beds for so many years that it is a big move to go to 80-inch. We didn't have anything that worked, so everything had to change to make it go to 80-inch—all new cultivators, planters, everything—so it isn't something that can be taken lightly."

Like most growers in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, Sanguinetti is nearly finished with planting. He said harvest typically begins in late July in the southern San Joaquin Valley and will probably begin about four or five weeks later farther north. Growers plant different tomato varieties and stagger planting dates so the tomatoes don't all mature at the same time, making it easier to avoid bottlenecks at the processors.

"We try not to plant any more in a day than we can harvest in a day. But a lot of times you plant faster than you can harvest because there are cannery quotas or maybe the tomatoes don't ripen just right. There are a lot of factors involved," he said.

Water availability this year has improved, particularly on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, which has alleviated some of the growers' concerns. But strong prices for alternative crops such as cotton and corn played a role in holding down tomato acreage.

"We've cut back on our tomato acreage," Sanguinetti said. "We've got a lot more corn planted. We like to grow tomatoes and we want to stay with this crop. We can't just quit, but we can cut back and then later if they want more tomatoes we can plant more. We are filling in with corn right now. With the price of corn, it shows a good profit. Corn may make us more money than the tomatoes. It may be our cash crop and tomatoes are something we are using for rotation."

Tom Turini, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Fresno County, said, "It doesn't look like we have the same challenges this year that we had over the last several years in terms of water, so that's not as up front of their minds at this point. Of course they know long term that's going to be a challenge, but the availability of Westlands water is certainly better than it was in 2008 or 2009."

Turini said he is already seeing tomato spotted wilt in some areas.

"For the most part this isn't at high levels, but it's a definite concern," he said. "Now there is a substantial acreage of processing tomatoes in the area that has genetic resistance, so that could help us."

Brenna Aegerter, UCCE farm advisor in San Joaquin County, said farmers in her area will likely complete planting around the first week of June. The wind can have some impact on tomato transplants, but Aegerter said that so far she hasn't heard of or seen any damage.

"The stands that I've seen so far look good. They aren't patchy, so at this point things look good," she said. "The wind can damage the plants in addition to just drying them out. It can actually damage the stems. Those little tender stems can get whipped around and get essentially broken by the wind."

Sanguinetti said that the varieties available to growers are far superior to those that were planted in the past—both in higher yields and disease resistance.

"If you just look at the yields, back in the 1970s we used to get 25 tons to the acre and now an average crop is probably 40 tons and we make 50, 60, 70 tons on occasion," he said. "We hope we can make some money, but when compared to the wheat and the corn and what the alfalfa has done and the walnuts and almonds, these crops have gone up substantially and tomatoes have stayed pretty flat."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Reporter Kathy Coatney contributed to this report.)

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

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