US (CA): Water crisis tempers outlook for tomatoes

If water supplies last until the end of the growing season, California farmers could deliver a record crop of processing tomatoes this year--but some of that will be at the expense of other crops that didn't get planted.

Limited water supplies have forced many farmers to fallow land and cut back on what they grow, but strong demand for processing tomatoes has made the crop an attractive option even in a tight water year.

California tomato processors have contracted for a record 14 million tons of processing tomatoes this year from 285,000 acres, the largest acreage since 2009 and an increase of 10 percent from last year, according to the latest planting intentions report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

With a contract price of $83 per ton—about $10 per ton more than what growers earned in 2013—Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, said there's economic value in a tomato contract and farmers want to allocate their water to the crop that "makes the most sense. The price helps—and the fact that individual growers are planting fewer acres of other crops, just not fewer tomato acres in some cases," Montna said.

Tomato production in the San Joaquin Valley suffered last year due to losses caused by beet curly top virus, shorting canneries of the tonnage they needed. With depleted inventories and continued high demand worldwide, canneries agreed to pay a higher price for processing tomatoes this year to attract more acreage.

"Increased production was expected both here in California and in other places in the world," Montna said.

It was also expected that some of the state's acreage would shift away from key growing regions such as Fresno County, where water supplies are scarce, to areas of the state where there's more water.

While the state's overall acreage may be up this year, Montna said it's too early to know if the predicted record tonnage will really pan out, noting that some growers already report wells going dry and other production problems that could reduce yields. To pull off 14 million tons, he said, it would take "a record crop in just about every county."

Source: agalert.com

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