Water crisis tempers outlook for tomatoes


Issue Date: July 9, 2014
By Ching Lee
San Joaquin County farmer Paul Sanguinetti stands in a field of processing tomatoes planted in late April. He says water availability and weather could reduce the crop in the weeks before harvest.
Photo/Ching Lee
Processing tomato plantings in San Joaquin County, where this field is located, increased to 32,000 acres this year.
Photo/Ching Lee

If water supplies last until the end of the growing season, California farmers could deliver a record crop of processing tomatoes this year--but some of that will be at the expense of other crops that didn't get planted.

Limited water supplies have forced many farmers to fallow land and cut back on what they grow, but strong demand for processing tomatoes has made the crop an attractive option even in a tight water year.

California tomato processors have contracted for a record 14 million tons of processing tomatoes this year from 285,000 acres, the largest acreage since 2009 and an increase of 10 percent from last year, according to the latest planting intentions report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

With a contract price of $83 per ton—about $10 per ton more than what growers earned in 2013—Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, said there's economic value in a tomato contract and farmers want to allocate their water to the crop that "makes the most sense."

"The price helps—and the fact that individual growers are planting fewer acres of other crops, just not fewer tomato acres in some cases," Montna said.

Tomato production in the San Joaquin Valley suffered last year due to losses caused by beet curly top virus, shorting canneries of the tonnage they needed. With depleted inventories and continued high demand worldwide, canneries agreed to pay a higher price for processing tomatoes this year to attract more acreage.

"Increased production was expected both here in California and in other places in the world," Montna said.

It was also expected that some of the state's acreage would shift away from key growing regions such as Fresno County, where water supplies are scarce, to areas of the state where there's more water.

In Fresno County, processing tomato acreage shrank by 9 percent from last year to 90,000 acres, and two other counties reduced their tomato acreage: Stanislaus County, down 15 percent to 11,000 acres, and San Benito County, down 50 percent to 1,000 acres. In other counties, acreage increased.

While the state's overall acreage may be up this year, Montna said it's too early to know if the predicted record tonnage will really pan out, noting that some growers already report wells going dry and other production problems that could reduce yields. To pull off 14 million tons, he said, it would take "a record crop in just about every county."

San Joaquin County grower Paul Sanguinetti said canneries may be overly optimistic about the tonnage, as water availability and weather could reduce the tomato crop. Though he has enough water to grow his crop this year, he noted that late spring and early summer heat has caused problems for his plants. He said he's also concerned about early fall rains that could wreak havoc on harvest, which he expects will run through mid-October.

"We're a long ways from harvest and there are a lot of late tomatoes," he said. "If El Niño comes early, (the canneries) will be lucky to get 10 million tons or 9 million tons."

Colusa County grower Darrin Williams said he increased his processing tomato acreage this year—but he also didn't grow any corn, which uses more water and for which prices are down. In addition, he had to fallow several hundred acres of other crops to stretch his water supply, a mix of surface water and groundwater.

Because he's relying more on groundwater this year, Williams said he is feeling "very uneasy" about rapidly dropping groundwater levels so early in the season, noting that he's already had to lower pumps on several wells and saying he questions whether he will run short on water in some fields toward the end of the season. As water levels sink, he said, water quality also deteriorates, with increased salt, boron and other minerals that hurt yields.

"Most people in the state think that because we're in the north, we've got all the water we need, that we don't have any water issues or water concerns, and that's so far from the truth," he said.

With zero water allocation from the Westlands Water District this year, Fresno County grower Alan Sano said he's relying on well water and some carryover surface water from last year. He's already had problems with two of his wells, he said, although one of them is now working again. With the other one still down, he's lost pumping capacity and a lot of water for his crops, he said.

Water shortages forced him to fallow 25 percent of his acreage—all of his wheat and garbanzo beans and some tomatoes. Because he also grows almonds and pistachios, Sano said he will probably reduce his irrigation on some of his tomato acreage to keep his trees alive.

"I think I'm going to run out of some water," he said.

On his early tomatoes at least, the quality looks good so far, he said, noting that he has not seen a huge problem with curly top virus or spider wilt this year and that he expects to begin harvest in another week. But whether he will have enough water to finish the season is another issue, Sano said, noting that only about 450 acres of his tomatoes are near harvest stage.

"I've got a lot of other acres that are at the beginning and they will still use quite a bit of water," he said. And with one well down, he added, "I don't have enough water to go around, so some of those fields are going to have to fall short."

Depending on how many acres will actually get to finish the season, he said, canners may not end up with the contracted tonnage they initially projected.

(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.