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Tomato harvest may fall short of early estimates

Issue Date: August 28, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
This year’s processing-tomato harvest took a hit from the stormy weather in May; the CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association says the crop lost 500,000 to 600,000 tons. Later plantings are running behind schedule for the same reason.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Springtime hail could cause the 2019 processing tomato crop to come up short of preseason predictions.

Mike Montna, chief executive of the California Tomato Growers Association, said hail hit tomato fields in May, particularly in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

"I think the impact of that hail, when all is said and done, is going to be half a million to 600,000 tons," Montna said, estimating harvest as of Aug. 23 to be about 1.4 million tons behind the previous year's pace.

The state's tomato processors reported contracts for 12.1 million tons of fruit on 235,000 acres as of May 31, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Production last year came in at 12.3 million tons, with 11.9 million under contract, USDA said.

"With this reduced crop, we are going to have pretty tight inventories, I would expect, going into next year's pack," Montna said.

Matt Maring, a diversified grower in Patterson, said harvest of his early fields started on time around Aug. 10, but he predicted later fields will come in behind schedule, as rain in late April and early May hindered his planting.

"We have completed one field, and it was right at average—like 50 tons," Maring said. "The next one we're in is pretty good. It's the upper 50s, and that's as far as we've got so far."

The later fields, usually done by Oct. 1, likely won't be done till about Oct. 15, he added—and that could be problematic.

"A lot of things happen after Sept. 15, between rain and mold," Maring said. "There's a lot of unpredictability."

Negotiated prices paid to farmers include late-season premiums, he added, and there's a reason for that.

"It's just not like picking tomatoes on Aug. 22, like today, where you can roll them out of the field," Maring said. "At the end of the season, you fight wet mornings, mold, possible rain."

CTGA and tomato processors have agreed on a $75 per ton price this year, Montna said, a slight boost from last year's $73.50. Late-season premiums have been reduced.

"We know there's going to be increased risk for the grower, but increased costs for the processor," Montna said.

Along with the risks come some rewards, Maring noted.

"Usually, there's some pretty good yields at the end of the year," Maring said. "I don't know if the tomatoes like the cooler weather after July or what, but we've gotten some pretty darn good yields at the end of September."

In Firebaugh, Alan Sano said his tomato harvest started only about a week late, and what's been picked so far has shown good quality. Although there have been hot days in his area, "it did get down in the evenings—(the) temperature cooled down, which helped out a lot," he said. "Plants need to cool down and regenerate, too, just like we do."

Fusarium wilt has been appearing in abundance this year, Sano and Maring said. The fungus infects plants through their roots and causes leaves to yellow and wilt, according to University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"We haven't had that much before, but this year it seems like it's quite a bit of it around," Sano said.

Maring said he can tell by looking through his windshield which fields have Fusarium issues.

"Some varieties have resistance to Fusarium, and some don't," Maring said. "The ones that have resistance to Fusarium are easily identifiable from the highway."

Maring and Sano rotate crops to help ward off the fungus. Maring rotates tomatoes with dry beans, cantaloupe and garlic; Sano uses garlic, melons, cotton and cover crops.

One thing Sano wishes he had more of is water.

"You know the rains, snowpack, we have water storage, all the reservoirs are full," Sano said. "We got a 75% (Central Valley Project) water allocation in a year like this."

That prompted him to buy additional water to finish his crops, he added.

Once the tomatoes leave the cannery, they'll enter a world fraught with currency and trade issues. A strong dollar, European Union tariffs and trade-deal negotiations with Japan are all areas of concern for Montna.

"We will be confined to our domestic NAFTA market, I think, for 2020, unless something changes," he said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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

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