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Tomato growers express hope business is ‘turning a corner’

Issue Date: February 5, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Tomato crop.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
During the California Tomato Growers Association annual meeting in Modesto, farmers heard economic projections and learned about work to curb plant diseases that could affect their crops.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

From rain to hail to strong inventories to trade disputes, events local and global have created rough sledding for processing-tomato growers—but now things may be looking up.

"I'm anticipating better spring weather," said Anthony Chesini, who grows tomatoes in Colusa County. "I'm just looking forward to getting stuff in the ground on time, and if it gets in the ground on time, then it should be a pretty smooth year."

On time, for Chesini, means mid-May. Last year, late-season rains postponed planting—to mid-June, in some cases—and harvest didn't end till the second week of October.

"Yields kind of suffered overall," Chesini said. "We were below average, which stinks when the price was better last year."

In 2020, Chesini's crop will be among the 12 million tons processors intend to contract for this year.

The number, essentially unchanged from last year, heartened Mike Montna, chief executive of the California Tomato Growers Association, which held its annual meeting in Modesto last week.

"I think it's a good message and indicator that our industry is going to do the same amount of tons as last year, even though we were about 800,000 tons short," Montna said. "We're going to have the lowest inventory level we've had since probably 2014."

This year's production likely will reduce inventories further, he added.

"To me, it's a signal that the industry needs to look at this a little different on both sides—not just the growing side but the industry as a whole is hopefully turning a corner to a little better time," he said.

At the meeting, economists Duncan MacEwan and Jay Noel took tomato farmers on a deep dive into the long-term economic forces affecting their business. The rising minimum wage, overtime changes and compliance with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act are hitting farmers' pocketbooks, with operating costs projected to rise 18% by 2023, they noted.

"Costs are going up," MacEwan said. "It's regulatory costs, it's policy and it's other just general changes, and that's labor, water, materials, other overhead costs, capital—all those things are changing. That affects the ability to grow crops competitively in the state."

Montna said farmers are trying to cope with rising production costs.

"We're not mad," he said. "We're not fighting the cost increases, but we need to understand them and understand the impacts. Someone's got to pay the grower, right?"

With a strong dollar and competition from overseas producers cutting into export markets, MacEwan said it might be time to seek new markets.

"I would say the real growth in the industry is through domestic and our NAFTA or USMCA partners," he said.

Montna said tomato prices for 2020 are still being negotiated; last year, growers were paid $75 per ton for their crop.

Disease pressures also were top of mind at the meeting, with tomato spotted wilt virus and Fusarium falciforme receiving special attention from University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors.

Fusarium falciforme, which has significant effects on tomato production, is poorly understood, said Cassandra Swett, a plant pathology specialist at UC Davis. The fungus leads to stem rot and vine decline, causing severe losses early in the season.

If a farmer suspects falciforme in his or her fields, she said, "go take your samples to a lab—either a private lab or take it to your farm advisor—and they'll work with us." Swett's lab at UC Davis is at present the only one in the state that can accurately diagnose the pathogen, but she intends to offer a diagnostic workshop late next month to larger labs in the state.

"By the 2020 growing season, we should have a pretty robust service for diagnosing falciforme," Swett said.

Brenna Aegerter, a UCCE farm advisor in San Joaquin County, said early trials with chemical protection were promising but more work is needed. The crop-protection material used in the trial runs $400 per acre, although it led to a 7.2-ton boost in yield and may be worth it in the long run.

Swett said other objectives include understanding the host range and studying cultivars to see which are most vulnerable. There is strong research suggesting that certain cultivars are more resistant.

On the spotted-wilt front, Fresno-based farm advisor Tom Turini said a resistance-breaking strain, first identified in 2016, has been documented in Fresno, Merced, Kings and Kern counties.

"If you can keep the area around your fields clean, plan where your tomato fields are going based on areas that you don't have control over, and then try to avoid putting a very late-planted field next to a very early-planted field," Turini said. "When you harvest that early field, likely the thrips from that field are going to move to something else green, which is probably your other tomato fields."

Turini said research into new resistant varieties at Cornell University has shown promise, but they remain years away from commercial viability. He's also looked into varieties on the market now, "and there are some that appear to be more susceptible than others for those that are growing in these high-risk areas."

"You might want to avoid those more susceptible varieties if possible," he said.

Rotation is more problematic with tomato spotted wilt virus than with other diseases.

"We know that the virus is making it through the winter on weeds and on other susceptible crops," such as lettuce and celery, Turini said.

If the tomatoes can make it past these obstacles and into the truck, a new world awaits, Montna said.

"We need to be better prepared, because it's different than it was five years ago," he said. "Different dynamics are affecting our market."

(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.




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