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California tomato crop lighter than expected

Bringing the 2017 tomato harvest to market has been a process fraught with challenges for growers.

"I would say things were very mixed up from the beginning because of the wet spring," said Arbuckle farmer Darrin Williams. "A lot of growers weren't able to stay on schedule planting, and that created problems at harvest time."

It was the same in Sacramento County, where Russell van Loben Sels grows row crops near Courtland.

"The tomato year started off very wet," van Loben Sels said. "For us here in the delta, the Sacramento River influences our groundwater table. We're usually the last part of the state to harvest, and we will be again probably this year. We got into the fields late."

Add in the summertime heat wave, disease pressures and lower prices, and the canneries will be seeing fewer tomatoes than they contracted for. Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, predicts the 2017 crop will weigh in at around 10.5 million tons—lower than the National Agricultural Statistics Service's June estimate of 11.8 tons, later revised to 11.5 million tons. The 2016 crop came in at 12.5 million tons, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

"The 2017 tomato season has been a very rough one," said Gene Miyao, a University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor in Woodland. "A lot of it has to do with our extended high temperatures in the late spring and into the summer."

Hal Robertson of Tracy was among those watching his plants grow old before their time.

"You have a plant that's breaking down from the heat, and can't transpire correctly with all that heat, and then nights that aren't cooling off to give it a chance to recover," he said. "The plant is maturing sooner, because what might take normally 125 days to mature, with all the heat and the warm nights, maybe it matures in 120 days."

The heat also prompted tomato plants to drop blossoms, Miyao said; when cooler temperatures returned, plants blossomed again, resulting in a split set.

"At harvest time, there's red ripe fruit; there's a whole area of no fruit and then a bunch of green fruit," Miyao said. For those farmers who can adjust their harvest schedules, he added, "the question becomes, do they take what's on the vine and red, ripe and ready? Or do they extend the harvest, wait and try to collect some of that green fruit?"

That becomes a dilemma for folks such as Robertson.

"You see a lot of fruit there, but a lot of it is just so green that it's never going to mature, or if you wait for it, then the rest of the crop will go bad from getting moldy and getting old," Robertson said.

That will cut down on yield, which Montna predicted will average about 44.5 tons per acre this year.

Besides the weather, tomato growers had to take on disease pressures. Miyao said Fusarium wilt race 3 is still making the rounds. While tomato varieties resistant to race 3 are available, the wilt is being seen in new areas and more often in old ones; there are other fusarium species to watch for as well, and research is underway to differentiate among them, he added.

Southern blight—scientific name Sclerotium rolfsii—has been a prominent issue as well, with reports coming in from the Sacramento and Central valleys.

"We hope that it's just the weather conditions of these extreme high temperatures and prolonged high temperatures that were the factor," Miyao said, "but it raises the question about 2018 in those fields that will be rotated back into tomatoes."

Robertson also has mold to contend with.

"Mold's been a big problem this year because of the warm temperatures breaking down the tomato and maybe the plant maturing earlier than it normally would," Robertson said. "Even if the processors are just a few days getting late, the plant still thinks it's maybe a week older than what it really is."

Van Loben Sels is having a decent year, all things considered.

"For us here in the delta, we've done fairly well, I think," van Loben Sels said. "Our crop is probably a little bit above average. It'll be harvested a little late."

The cooler weather of the past couple of weeks has slowed ripening, he said.

"We don't have the super-high yields that other parts of the state have," van Loben Sels said. "I would consider for us between 35 to 40 tons (per acre) is a reasonably good yield."

At the Williams ranch, disease pressures were not as much of a problem.

"I was fortunate," Williams said. "I did have a decent crop. It was below contract, but still, I was happy with it. But our pay percentage is lower, so the dollars received is less per acre."

Farmers say the economics of growing tomatoes are wearing on them. The CTGA negotiated a base price of $70.50 per ton for this year's crop, down from $72.50 last year and $80 two years ago.

"I had a discussion with our canner not more than a week ago, and my conclusion is that $70 a ton is not sustainable," van Loben Sels said.

To meet his costs, he'll need an above-average yield without too much overhead, he added.

"Hopefully, between inventory and monetary fluctuations, next year's pricing will be better," van Loben Sels said. "We're not interested in growing a lot of tomatoes for 70 bucks."

Williams said this year's tomato crop is his last. Next year, his ranch will be converted from row crops to almonds.

"Tomatoes require a good crop rotation to maintain yields," said Williams, who also has corn, sunflowers, wheat, alfalfa and beans. "We have to plant the rotational crops in order to keep our yields up."

Citing changes in California minimum-wage and agricultural overtime laws, Williams said he could no longer justify growing tomatoes and the rotational crops. Switching to almonds will mean half the employees and twice the returns, he said.

Robertson said he will still have tomatoes next year. He said he figures the break-even point is 50 tons per acre, and this year he's been below that figure.

"I'll be more selective on the ground that I put it on," he said. "I'm not trusting the weather too much right now."

For more information:
Kevin Hecteman
California Farm Bureau Federation
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