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Global overview: the tomato market

This season, a common theme in the global tomato market is increasing pressure from viruses such as the ToBRV, as well as continued abnormal weather patterns and rising production costs. The increased cost of energy continues to be of particular concern in many countries as the northern hemisphere switches to lit cultivation during the darker winter months. All these factors combined mean higher tomato prices across the board.

The Netherlands and Belgium: Energy crisis and virus issues put pressure on tomato growers
In the Dutch and Belgian tomato greenhouses, the lights have been on for a while now. It is time for lit cultivation after an extraordinary season with remarkably high prices since the summer. At the moment, however, the high energy prices are the most striking factor.

The season for the unlit crops is over, except for a small group of autumn growers who mainly grow large truss tomatoes; they will produce for a short period around this time. Most growers without lights are now working on their crop rotation and preparing for a new season. For growers who plant a new unlit crop in December in particular, there will be changes due to the energy crisis. It is expected that next spring, there will be peaks and troughs in production at various moments.

That was already the case this year, mainly due to virus problems, which caused 'winter prices' in the summer when growers were forced to clear their greenhouses after being infected with the Tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV), both in the Netherlands and in Belgium. The latest updates of the official figures show 29 infections in the Netherlands and 12 in Belgium. As a result of virus problems, growers are exploring new crops. There are also growers who are switching to cucumber or sweet pepper, for example.

After a summer with high prices, an autumn followed in which the prices remained at a high level and even appeared to continue rising, contrary to the trends of recent years. In recent weeks, the upward price trend has stabilized for a while; November often sees a small dip when imported products become available in large quantities. Nevertheless, this week the prices of truss tomatoes, the largest segment among open field growers, are once again on the rise. The prices for loose tomatoes have on average been slightly lower than those for vine tomatoes in recent weeks.

This winter, some growers in the Netherlands and Belgium are choosing not to grow their lit crops at all, due to high energy prices. Growers with unfavorable energy contracts who currently have to buy gas and electricity at high prices have decided to leave their greenhouses empty this winter. There are also growers who have adjusted their lighting strategy or their cultivation strategy in such a way that they can temporarily do with less energy. As a result, the plants are growing slower at the moment, but growers hope to be able to speed up again once energy prices drop again. At the moment, however, that is not yet in sight.

Germany: Low temperatures cause drop in demand for tomatoes
Due to the low temperatures in Germany, demand has fallen significantly. Nevertheless, the supply is as high as ever in terms of volume and varieties, so that demand could be easily met. The Dutch supply decreased noticeably, while the supply from Spain increased.

The Spaniards have also noticed the rising gas prices in the Netherlands and are adjusting their market prices accordingly. As a result, the price for the early Spanish tomatoes is notably higher for certain varieties than for the latest Dutch tomatoes. The remaining supply comes mainly from Morocco, Belgium, and Italy.

Italy: Rising production costs and ToBRV pressure hamper Italian tomato producers
According to data, in the last year ending in September 2021, over 23.2 million Italian families (89% of the total) purchased an item falling in the tomato category at least once. On average, Italians buy tomatoes 17.2 times a year, for an average cost of €2.10.

For the producers, the 2021 season was a difficult one. In the summer, tomatoes suffered from high temperatures and diseases such as the Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus. The heat halved the yields, while the costs have risen, and the average price of cherry tomatoes (€1.50/kg) only partially paid off the costs. Even now, in the autumn, demand from foreign markets, such as Germany and Austria, has weakened, due to the resumption of the pandemic. Given the uncertainty that brings with it, it is likely that some producers will decide to reduce the number of hectares planted with tomatoes in the future.

Spain: Decline in production area of Spanish tomatoes due to pressure from multiple sides
The month of November began with an increase in the prices of all types of tomatoes, with the exception of the vine tomato. The vine tomato and the smooth tomato are the commercial types with the highest price in the auctions of Almeria.

Tomatoes continue to lose ground in the whole Andalusian horticultural area. According to initial estimates for the season, it will reduce its surface by 3% compared to last season, when it was close to 8,400 hectares. Its high production costs, especially in regards to labor, strong international competition, mainly from Morocco, as well as problems caused by viruses and Tuta absoluta, together with prices that fail to meet the expectations of producers, are leading to their progressive substitution by crops with a lower salary impact, such as peppers and zucchini. 

According to various sources in the sector, the types of tomato that will reduce their cultivation surface the most this season will be the round tomato and the vine tomato. The pear tomato maintains a number of hectares of cultivation similar to last season. On the other hand, the specialties with the highest added value and profitability, such as rose-type tomatoes, beef, and cherries of different colors show greater strength to compete with productions from third countries and show an increase in their growing area. In the month of November, Andalusian production, still limited, overlaps in international markets with the end of the Central European season which, despite offering lower quality product, puts pressure on Spanish tomato prices. Moroccan production is increasing notably in mid-November, competing with greater intensity with the supply from Almería, Granada, and Murcia in the European markets.

South Africa: Heavy rains affect South African tomato harvest
Tomato prices have significantly fallen due to high volumes on the market over the past month. The average price on the market decreased by 42% to R4.47 (€0.25) per kg due to an increase in supply, but a turning point is expected as rain is hampering harvesting in the northern region.

Tomato producers in the northern parts of the country (Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northwest Province, where tomatoes are grown) are on guard: there has been widespread, substantial rain since the weekend. If the summer has above average rainfall, as is predicted, it would have a direct effect on pest pressure and yields (as happened last year), and volumes will decrease.

A tomato trader reports that there are some producers who lost much of their yield to pest damage last year (for instance Tuta absoluta), and if the same happens this year (while Tuta absoluta pressure is already very high), they could cease tomato production, at least for the foreseeable future.

China: Poor weather and increased production costs drive up Chinese tomato prices
From the summer onwards, Chinese tomato prices have remained high. Some time ago, Shandong, Hebei, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, and other places encountered continuous rainfall for many days, causing the fruit setting rate of tomatoes to be lower than usual, and the volume of tomatoes on the market to be significantly less than in normal years. Since the beginning of this year, the prices of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other supplies have increased, driving up the production cost, and rising oil prices have driven up transportation costs, thus also inflating vegetable prices. At present, the wholesale price of ordinary tomatoes remains high, the price is about 6 yuan/500 grams.

In recent years, the demand for high-end cherry tomatoes in China's first-tier cities has surged. Take Shanghai as an example; due to the limited planting area in the urban area, the current cherry tomato supply is less than 1/5 of the total consumption. Therefore, some companies have begun to build greenhouses in urban areas within the city to reduce transport costs and ensure the local supply of cherry tomatoes.

North America: Consistent supply and better prices for NA tomatoes
For one U.S.-based grower with hydroponic operations in Mexico, grape tomatoes seem to be taking the lead in the category's growth, and the grower is looking to expand the production of grape tomatoes. The grower also grows beefsteak tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine (TOVs).

“Supplies of beefsteak and TOVs are similar to last year at this time. There’ve been some ups and downs following the pandemic, and our numbers aren’t always following the trend we’re used to, but overall, it’s nothing unexpected and we’re able to supply tomatoes,” he says.

Canada is also in production with greenhouse tomatoes at this time.

Meanwhile, demand for tomatoes is consistent. “We’ve seen good demand, and we’re pushing a lot more tomatoes with the winter and holiday season coming up,” he says. “Overall, if anything, demand is slowly increasing on tomatoes, grape tomatoes especially. There’s a big market for grape tomatoes.”

While grape tomatoes have helped grow the category, particularly as a snack choice, the grower says that pre-packaged salads and salad kits are also a growing option for grape tomatoes. “They’re increasing in popularity and we’re finding a lot of clients are looking for product that can sit in their kits,” he says.

As for pricing on tomatoes, it is fairly comparable to last year at this time.

Meanwhile, Florida has begun its field tomato production, and the season is on time - unlike some other commodities in production at this time, such as specialty peppers, which are delayed. “The quality is excellent. We had quite a bit of rain in the early fall, and some of the weather fronts passing later have helped the crop,” says one Florida grower who is in production with vine-ripened round tomatoes and Roma tomatoes, a new item for them. “The quality is looking really nice on the tomatoes. You can irrigate, but it’s never the same as a nice rainfall. It’s balanced everything out and now the weather is cooling down, so that’s helped us as well.”

While acreage has stayed the same, the grower has increased the overall footprint on both types of tomatoes.

As for demand, it is good right now. “Everything is moving. Demand hasn’t been exceptional, but it’s been good,” he says. Florida growers also are keeping an eye on increased freight rates which may make Florida product a more attractive option to nearby regions.

The grower also says that the prices are about mid-range to slightly higher than that compared to last year.