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US (SA): S.J. open field tomato crop damaged by pest

California tomato growers face significant losses from the beet curly top virus, which is reaching epidemic proportions this year, farm officials report.

The viral plant disease - which can affect beans, spinach, melons, peppers, squash and cucumbers, as well as tomatoes and sugar beets, from which it gets its name - is a perennial problem for farmers in the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

But this year, it is hitting harder and affecting crops over a wider area, including some in San Joaquin County.

Brenna Aegerter, a vegetable crops adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stockton, said she's never seen it so bad. In particular, it is affecting the processing-tomato crop.

"In my eight years here in this county, I had only seen curly top in two fields," she said. "The virus was present in every tomato field I have seen this season, though in most fields, the incidence was so low as to not be a concern."

Mike Montna, president and chief executive of the California Tomato Growers Association, said damage to the State's processing tomatoes - those destined for canneries to be turned into salsa, ketchup and spaghetti sauce - is unprecedented.

"If you talk to growers and processors who've been in the industry a long time, this is the worst incidence of the curly top virus they've ever seen," he said Friday. "There have been fields that have been completely taken out and replanted."

While earlier projections put this year's harvest at 13.1 million metric tons, the latest estimates of the virus-damaged crop run from 11.7 million to 12.2 million metric tons, Montna said.

The heaviest damage is seen in tomato fields in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, where curly top virus is always a problem.

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