Rising costs and water shortages challenge tomato growers
Bruce Rominger with Rominger Brothers Farm in Winters, checks tomato plants that were impacted by strong winds in late spring. Rominger said the yields will be less this year as a result.
Processing tomatoes are an expensive and a risky crop to grow. Unprecedented increases in fuel prices combined with water shortages and poor growing conditions have impacted yield and will make it difficult for processing tomato growers to be profitable this year.
Ross Siragusa, president/chief executive officer of California Tomato Growers Association, said, "When we first started off the crop everyone had high expectations in terms of overall crop quality."
But a change in the weather shortly after most planting was completed has changed that expectation. High winds during the early growing season have caused blossoms to drop, which in turn reduced yields, and in sandy soils it basically sandblasted the plants, Siragusa said.
"It sheared off leaves and really set the tomato plants back," Siragusa said.
Don Cameron, a processing tomato grower and owner Terranova Farm in Helm, said he's struggled with high winds that damaged the blossoms, tore leaves and beat up the tomato plants.
"It was just real depressive to the plants," Cameron said.
Cameron said he probably missed part of the set because of the wind.
"The plants will continue to bloom, but we run the possibility of a split set or just a gap within the plants where we're going to have reduced yields."
Bruce Rominger with Rominger Brothers Farm in Winters, said the winds impacted some of his fields where the plants were upright and weren't weighed down by fruit load.
When the plants get blown off to the side of the bed at this stage they never really stand back up, Rominger explained. This results in the crop growing on a narrower area, which means less yield is produced.
"You end up wasting a part of your tomato bed itself," Rominger said.
Water reductions in western Fresno County will also impact the 2008 crop, resulting in reduced yields.
"What's happened is guys don't have enough water to irrigate the crops properly," Cameron said.
Water is also a concern for Rominger.
"Our irrigation district has an adequate supply for this season, but we'll go into this winter with virtually nothing in storage and be totally dependent on a hopefully good rainfall year, or we will be seriously short next year," he said.
Processing tomato acreage is down from 293,000 acres in 2007 to 277,000 in 2008, Siragusa said.
"I think that 277,000 (acres) may be optimistic," Siragusa said, adding the reduction in acreage can be tied to other competitive crops and water availability.
Water will be a factor in whether growers choose to plant tomatoes next year.
"The tricky part about that is we have to make some of those decisions before we know how much it's going to rain," Rominger said.
For instance, if growers decide to plant wheat, that decision has to be made in November before the winter rains. "It might be a situation where many growers will plant wheat if the price is good this fall in anticipation of a potentially short water year," Rominger said. "That's going to be an attractive option going into the fall, but the wheat prices are fluctuating, so it remains to be seen how popular that option is."
Curly top virus has impacted growers in western Fresno County. Beet leafhoppers are the vector for the disease. When the foothills dry out, the leafhoppers leave and move into tomato fields.
The earlier curly top infects the plant, the more damage and yield loss. Symptoms include stunted leaves that curl or cup upward, purple veins, and depending on the stage of plant there may be no fruit development, or the fruit may turn red prematurely.
Growers pay a per ton fee into a leafhopper control program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors and applies chemicals to the foothills for the leafhoppers, Siragusa said.
"Typically what we try to do is have a fall (spray) program and a spring (spray) program," Siragusa said, which helps to minimize the problem.
This year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not spray on federal lands because of concerns that spraying malathion would impact kit fox and kangaroo rats, which are endangered species, Siragusa said.
Tom Turini, vegetable crops farm advisor for Fresno County said there is a higher incidence of curly top virus in tomatoes in western Fresno County this year than in past years.
Fields that have the curly top virus have seen anywhere from 5 to 25 percent infection.
"I've seen one near the foothills that was about 60 percent," Turini said.
With a small infestation of about 5 percent, it's likely that the healthy plants will compensate for the diseased plants by growing larger and producing higher yields, Turini said.
Growers are trying to manage the curly top virus with chemicals, but these products are expensive and only moderately effective, Siragusa said.
"It's difficult to assess the full damage at this stage, but for the affected fields, you're looking anywhere from 5 to 20 percent plant loss," Siragusa said.
Prices for the processing tomato crop are negotiated in December. In the past, growers have wanted an earlier price so they know the price prior to planting, Cameron said.
Soaring input costs, however, have made a profitable price in December become borderline by June.
"Our costs have gone up after we negotiated the price, so we certainly don't expect to have a profit like we were hoping we had a possibility for, at least back in December," Rominger said.
The rapid rise in inputs this year may result in changing the contract so that there is some adjustment possible for increased input costs during the season, Rominger said.
"There's certainly a lot of examples out there in the business world where there's escalators for cost of living increases built into things that automatically go up when other major input costs go up," Rominger said.
Growers will look for other options that are more lucrative if prices don't increase, and this could result in acreage declining again next year, Rominger said.
(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Corning. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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