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Tomato growers report rising exports, yields

Issue Date: February 6, 2013
By Christine Souza
Thanks to improved varieties and growing methods, average yields for California-grown processing tomatoes have risen, with another record expected this year. Source: USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, California
Graph design/Sarah Lee
California Tomato Growers Association President and CEO Mike Montna discusses increased worldwide demand for processing tomatoes at the organization’s annual meeting in Modesto.
Photo/Christine Souza

The growth trajectory for the California processing tomato business remains steady. Growers say they remain optimistic about the commodity's place in the world, especially as a bigger player in the export market.

"The California processing tomato industry is the envy of the world. We are unsurpassed in quality, food safety and production," said Huron-area grower Bret Ferguson, who chairs the California Tomato Growers Association board. "The California tomato industry is cutting-edge, streamlined and timed from field to finished product. Processors are a partner in making California second to none in the tomato industry."

Tomato processors expect to contract for more tomatoes this year, to be grown on 261,000 acres, according to a California Agricultural Statistics Service Processing Tomato Report released in January.

"The latest California processor report indicates the intentions of the industry to be around 13 million tons," said California Tomato Growers Association President and CEO Mike Montna, who spoke at the organization's 66th Annual Meeting last week in Modesto. "This appears to indicate that as a whole, the industry is comfortable with current inventory levels going into the next harvest."

The 13 million ton crop, according to the CTGA, would represent the second-largest processing tomato crop produced in the state. Last year, farmers grew 260,000 acres of processing tomatoes and harvested 12.6 million tons, a slight increase from 2011, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Another record is expected to come this season in the form of higher yields. Growers may achieve a statewide yield of 49.8 tons per acre, which is 1.21 tons higher than last year's 48.6 tons per acre. Analysts attributed the increasing yields to growers' investments in new infrastructure—such as drip irrigation systems—and improved tomato varieties.

The association said it is currently negotiating with processors to lock in a price for growers for this year's crop. Montna said an agreed-upon price may be reached in the next couple of weeks.

"We started with a mutual exchange of offers, which we put into place three or four years ago. This year, our opening offer was $74 (per ton) and the average of the processors' offers was $67.80 (per ton)," Montna said. "In grower meetings we've conducted up and down the state, one thing has been clear and that is the final number will need to have a seven in front of it to get the price done for this year."

There are many bright spots for California processing tomato growers, including that exports have become more important in the movement of paste and other tomato-based products to the markets of Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea and Italy.

"Last year, paste exports increased 14 and a half percent from the prior year. This is good news for our industry," Montna said. "Given the quality and competitive price of our product, most view that the paste export business could be here to stay for California."

Growers at the meeting learned about recent market data that showed educating consumers about the health benefits of eating tomato products will lead to greater consumption. Rodger Wasson, program director for the Tomato Products Wellness Council, said, "Bottom line, we're showing that generic promotion works."

"There's been good experiences with (generic promotion) and it appears that we can have an impact on this industry. We can grow demand and we've got the numbers to show it," Wasson said.

As for challenges in the coming year, Montna pointed to the closure of the Campbell's Soup remanufacturing facility in Sacramento, and said that it points to the difficult business climate that exists in California.

"California agriculture as a whole is going to need to do a better job explaining to people and to regulators what is truly important to us…We need to get more involved," Montna said.

This sentiment was shared by Louie Brown, an agricultural advocate and partner with Kahn Soares & Conway of Sacramento and Hanford. Brown described California's political landscape for 2013, the first time in more than 100 years that the California Legislature has been dominated by one party with a supermajority in both houses and a governor of the same party.

"There will be opportunities for the agriculture industry to have a positive impact in Sacramento, but only if you are involved," Brown said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She 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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