Processing tomatoes have been a mixed bag of news for California growers, at least for the past several years. Stagnant contract prices and disease and insect pressures have taken a toll on growers. Market forces, including the allure of high priced grain corn spurred by ethanol production, are making things interesting in 2007. No one is really certain at this point who is playing the game or where the game is headed.

“A revised acreage number will come out in late May,” says Ross Siragusa, president, California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA). “In the interim we expect acreage to be in the 280,000 – 290,000 range which is slightly higher than 2006. Growers did plant corn from the Delta north. We certainly would have seen more tomatoes if other row crops hadn’t been so strong.”

Tomato contract prices are still unsettled at this late date. “All processors but one agreed to $63,” Siragusa says. “The final pricing on several contracts is contingent on what gets settled with the last processor.

“With the dry weather we have had this year, the main problem is the lack of moisture in the beds at planting,” says Don Cameron, Terranova Ranch Manager in Helm, Calif. “Water had to be applied pretty quickly after planting this year due to the extremely dry conditions. The dry weather is producing ideal conditions for the new plants as opposed to last year when wet weather brought on a lot of disease problems. Water is the key to the crop this year. With water already being traded at $230 per acre foot, we are positioned for an interesting year.”

Water could very well be the “Achilles heel” as the season progresses even though the production situation favorable at this point.

“The crop should be early, and we have the potential for above average yields,” Siragusa says. “There is a great deal of concern regarding the water situation for 2008. Unlike previous dry years, the amount of permanent crops has increased dramatically. Permanent crops will get the water first. Row crops can’t afford to pay $200 plus for supplemental water.”

Fresno County growers have all the early fruit in the ground and the crop is on its way, according to Cameron, president of CTGA. In some cases, growers have put plants in the ground counting on good faith or at least betting on the come.

“We are still negotiating - primarily with Morningstar - on this year’s price,” Cameron says. “They are still offering a price below the rest of the industry. The majority of the industry is at $63 per ton which sounds good on the surface. However, with the increased production costs we have seen, a grower will need a good crop to make money.”

Northward, planting is still progressing while disease and insects are already wreaking havoc with the early crop. “We’ve had some tomatoes in the ground for over three weeks now,” says Mark Vierra, PCA with Helena in Merced. “We’re about 25 percent planted now. We’ve already seen pretty intense disease and insect pressure, particularly in the ‘sustainable’ or ‘minimum’ tillage fields. Darkling ground beetles and wireworms have been causing problems in those situations. We’ve had some bacterial speck which some growers have treated for and some have not.”