Weather reduces size of 2019 processing tomato crop


Issue Date: October 23, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman

California's processing tomato harvest is all but done, and this time Mother Nature helped herself to a sizable piece of it.

The president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, Mike Montna, said he thinks the final 2019 harvest will total about 11.1 million tons—or 1 million short of the originally intended amount. Late-season rain and hail ate into the crop, Montna said.

"It kind of played out just how we expected," he said. "It's two out of three years now. (2017) was a rough crop, '18 was a good crop and '19 another rough crop."

As for inventory, the shorter harvest will "get us down to right around real tight inventories—close to maybe 4.2, 4.1 million tons (at the) end of June," Montna said.

Russell van Loben Sels of Courtland is one of the many tomato farmers up and down the state who had to postpone planting due to rains that lasted almost until Memorial Day.

"We were planting well toward the end of May and into June," he said, noting that he intended to wrap up his 2019 harvest at the end of last week.

Van Loben Sels said his yields are coming in at about 40 to 41 tons per acre, below the statewide average of 47 to 48 tons that Montna predicted. Processing tomato yields have averaged from 42 to 49 tons per acre from 2008 to 2017, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, with the peak occurring in 2016.

Van Loben Sels said tomato varieties have the largest effect on yields, but rotation is also a factor.

"In this country, if you run tomatoes after tomatoes, you usually suffer after the second year," he said. "You start suffering pretty rapid declines in yield."

He said his best field this year had been out of tomatoes for six years.

Yields seem to be stable statewide, Montna said.

"We're trying new varieties, new genetics, anything we can, but I think it's kind of just keeping us where we are," Montna said, "which is OK."

To increase yields, he said, growers need to find "the next big thing," along the lines of drip irrigation, which gave tomato growers a yield boost over sprinklers.

On the financial front, tomato farmers were paid slightly more for their crop this year: $75 per ton, up from $73.50 in 2018.

"At the same time, minimum wage went up a dollar, which pushes everything higher," van Loben Sels said. "I wouldn't call it a wonderful year. I would say we're holding our own, but we're not out of the woods by any means."

Montna repeated his earlier prognostication that 2020 will see tomato exports limited to the "NAFTA market," with little exporting to the European Union owing to an unfavorable exchange rate. One trade development, however, gave him reason for optimism.

"We're very pleased about the Japan trade deal," Montna said of the recently concluded agreement that, among other things, gradually eliminates Japanese tariffs on U.S. tomato paste. "For our industry, Japan is a top-five destination. There's some good partnerships there. I think it's a win-win for both countries." (See story)

Montna said he foresees a larger 2020 crop.

"I would anticipate processors wanting to do more and their intentions to be doing more, just to kind of get that inventory back up a little bit, because another short crop and we'd be tight," he said.

Even so, he added, tomato growers and canners have to be careful not to overdo it.

He said even though they "want to replenish our inventory, we don't need to be doing the volumes we did back in '14 or '15," when the state produced 14 million and 14.4 million tons, respectively, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Among farm advisors who specialize in tomatoes, a new disease pressure is causing concern, on top of Fusarium wilt race 3 and tomato spotted wilt virus.

"Now we've got this new Fusarium crown rot, and boy, in some fields it was devastating," said Brenna Aegerter, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in San Joaquin County. "It basically results in pretty quick decline of the field."

Plants infected with Fusarium crown rot will show yellowing along the margin of the oldest leaves, according to UC, followed by necrosis. Infected plants may be stunted and wilted, and the disease may kill older plants.

"It's not everywhere, but it's in enough fields that it's pretty discouraging for the guys that got hit with it," Aegerter said, adding that research is underway at UC Davis.

Aegerter said tomato varieties resistant to Fusarium wilt race 3 are susceptible to Fusarium crown rot, so that's "not going to be the solution, unfortunately." Developing new varieties will likely take years, she added.

(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.