Other growers left tomatoes and are planting different crops

By Craig W. Anderson

More tomatoes could be grown in California this year according to a report from the USDA-NASS Pacific Regional Office which surveyed the state's tomato processors regarding their intended contract acreage for the 2018 season.

Processors are expected to contract for 12 million tons of tomatoes, a 4.3 percent increase over 2017. Processing tomatoes acreage had dropped to low levels a year ago as, said the report, processors pursued a balance between supply and demand.

"Last year the hot weather after the extreme rains caused a downturn in production," said Paul Sanguinetti, SJFB board member and tomato grower. "The price wasn't high enough for tomatoes. Fifty tons per acre is needed to break even and there's no guarantee the crop will be close to that. Two dollars more per ton isn't enough to make a difference." The 2017 price per ton was $70.

Sanguinetti said he's planting less acres of tomatoes this year and that "a few more borderline years like those we've been having and no one will be growing tomatoes."

2017's challenges

The major problems in 2017 were extreme rainfall and extreme summer heat that "once again proved that despite our best planning and intentions that Mother Nature is still in charge," said Mike Montna, president/CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association. "The weather also increased disease pressure and the eventual yield was 44.9 tons per acre. The estimates for 2018 are for 50 tons per acre but I think it will be more in the 48 ton range."


The state's 2017 crop of processing tomatoes was grown on more than 235,000 acres and it's expected that 2018's 12 million tons will be grown on about 240,000 acres, about a 2 percent increase, according to Montna. He said negotiations are ongoing regarding prices "and we'll see where it comes out" hopefully better than last season when growers lost money with 2017 prices.

Costs increased

"California's costs for growers of tomatoes and most other crops have increased," Montna said. "Water, wages, overtime hours, minimum wage, weather, pest and disease pressures all contribute to the challenge of growing tomatoes."

He said a variety of audits cost time and money but Montna expects the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act won't affect the processing tomato industry because "we've been working on FSMA and because our product is heated it's safe and we'll be OK."

Gradual decline

Because of the years of low prices and rising costs caused by a variety of reasons, growers cut back on their production and in what became a too familiar situation, grower's production declined as did a farm tomato operation that went from 1,000 acres in 2016, to 100 acres in 2017 and to zero in 2018. 

The grower who wished to remain anonymous summed up the decline of tomatoes. "What happened was bad prices that got worse, too low to stay in tomatoes. We already grow walnuts and cherries and have no plans to plant more in place of tomatoes. We'll be planting other field crops."

Getting out of tomatoes

Andrew and Kenny Watkins grew tomatoes but saw the handwriting on the wall and stopped growing the fruit six years ago, Andrew said. "Tomatoes numbers weren't working and we saw their decline coming on as it became more expensive and difficult to grow tomatoes."

The usual litany of difficulties influenced the Watkins brothers so they looked elsewhere for a viable crop. "Low prices, high labor costs, water challenges in a decade of drought it all added up to turn to different crops. We planted orchards that are sustainable and permanent."

The Watkins' were gone from the tomato marketplace when Bruce Rominger, the California Tomato Growers Association's board chairman, said, "2017 was a very challenging year to be a grower and the summer heat was the main culprit."

Can exports help fix the problem

He also said, "The average tomato grower in California lost money this past year. We need to fix that." An improved export market may play a role in fixing the tomato situation, according to Montna, who said, "Overseas markets will be crucial to growth during the next decade. About 7 to 8 percent of shipments are to Mexico and Canada." Both are partners with the United States in the North American Free Trade Agreement which is currently being renegotiated.

Growers face facts

But will that be enough to keep growers in the tomato marketplace? "Growers are leaving tomatoes," Montna said. "They're look at what they can grow, the right combination of crops and they're looking at permanent crops instead of tomatoes. Growers are making decisions that will affect them positively down the road." He said that the majority of tomato growers have some type of permanent crop in their system. "It's economics driving the industry and growers are asking themselves, ‘What can I plant and make a profit with? What makes sense long term? The economic landscape of tomatoes needs rebalancing."

What must industry do?

The changes in the processing tomato industry will be considered by growers who will be studying what went wrong and what mitigation will work to fix it. How growers irrigate, fertilize and control diseases and pests will all contribute to a profitable crop in 2018.

Trees may be solution

Sanguinetti said more tomato growers are getting into trees long term but "some are thinking about growing more tomatoes this year. But they'll be facing Pace's imported paste prices undercutting our tomatoes, among other things."

"Trees are steadier once they're producing," said Sanguinetti. "Sure, there's some risk gong to orchards but as trees come in, tomatoes go out and there's generally a good transition."