Growers of processing tomatoes are optimistic

By Robert Rodriguez / rrodriguez@fresnobee.comJune 29, 2012 

FRESNO -- California's growers of processing tomatoes are getting a pay raise this year as export markets are rebounding and the industry is set to produce one of the biggest crops in history.

The growers, who supply more than 90 percent of the nation's tomatoes for use in pizza sauce, paste and ketchup, will be getting $69.40 a ton from the state's processors. That's up from last year's base price of $68 a ton.

Acreage and production also are on the rise. This year, farmers planted 254,000 acres, 6,000 more than 2011. With more acres planted and improved production methods, farmers are expected to produce 12.9 million tons of tomatoes -- the second-largest crop in history.

"If guys get decent yields, it will be close to a record," said Mike Montna, president of the Sacramento-based California Tomato Growers Association. "Things are looking up, despite the increased costs of farming."

Prices have been trending up since 2010, when a large inventory and soft consumer demand dropped prices to $65 a ton in 2010.

"We have increased yields and, with a better price, we have a chance to make a little money this year," said Don Cameron, who farms near Five Points in southwest Fresno County. "We won't get rich at $69 a ton, but it is a fair price."

Fresno County is the state's leading grower of processing tomatoes, supplying more than one-third of the state's crop. This year, Fresno County growers have contracted to grow processing tomatoes on 97,000 acres, 2,000 more than the previous year.

Stronger demand overseas is helping farmers out this year. U.S. tomato paste exports through March totalled 1.9 million tons, compared to 1.4 million tons during the same period last year. That trend is expected to continue, as foreign producers, including China, Italy and Spain, are expected to have a smaller crop.

The U.S. has been a net exporter of tomato products since 1991, and only 6 percent of the processed tomatoes consumed are imported.

"I don't think there is anyone in the world who can produce a pound of tomato paste as efficiently as California," said Aaron Barcellos, a Los Banos-area grower. "We have a pretty strong hold on the market."

While Barcellos is optimistic about the upcoming season, he said farmers face challenges including higher costs for fuel and fertilizer. And another year of below-average precipitation could pose problems next year.

"We were able to get carry-over water this year, but we've had to use it up," Barcellos said. "We will see what next year will bring."

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