California producers are expected to plant more than 300,000 acres of the processing tomatoes this year; if realized, it will be the first crop of that size since the 329,000 acres produced in 1999.

Prices are not final yet. Initial offers are about $63 per ton, but the California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA) is holding out for a $65 per ton base price.

CTGA claims last year's short crop of just 10.1 million tons has depleted inventory and low prices over the past few years have not kept up with the cost of production. Last year's average price was $58 per ton, with an average yield of 36.4 tons per acre. Processing plant door price was $67 per ton, which included premiums.

Prior to that first delivery point, prices have been $50 per ton for four straight years, with processing premiums bringing that up to $56 to $59 per ton.

The first delivery point price of $63 per ton would be the highest ever established.

Tomato growers have substantially increased acreage, banking on higher prices as a result of low inventory.

Weather this spring has been good for the most part and the crop should approach that 40-ton average yield. With highest-ever field price, it behooves growers to protect the crop from insects like beet armyworm.

In some areas, beet armyworm may be the most important caterpillar attacking tomatoes. Eggs are laid on leaves in clusters covered with hair-like scales left by the female moth; there may be 100 or more eggs per cluster, but usually there are fewer, according to University of California entomologists.

Newly-hatched larvae feed together on foliage near the egg cluster and gradually disperse as they grow. Older larvae feed on leaves and fruit. Larvae usually are dull green with many fine, wavy, light-colored stripes down the back and a broader stripe along each side; they usually have a dark spot on the side of the thorax above the second true leg. The color varies, however, and the spot is absent in a proportion of some populations.

The pupa is similar to that of the tomato fruitworm; it is formed in a cell on or just below the soil surface. The adult moth has a wingspan of about 1 inch. The life cycle takes about a month in warm weather, and there are three to five generations a year.

Beet armyworm attacks both foliage and fruit, creating single or closely-grouped circular or irregular holes. In processing tomatoes, feeding is superficial and little loss would result for paste or juice uses if not for decay organisms that enter wounds and rot the fruit. Damage is problematic for whole pack or diced uses. Check with the processor for acceptable levels of armyworm-scarred fruit

University of California entomologists recommend sampling fruit for beet armyworm when the fruit reaches an inch or more in diameter. Treatment is not necessary prior to this size, as the damaged fruit will fall from the plant and little yield loss will occur.

PCAs should pick at least 100 fruit at random while walking through the field, being careful not to select red fruit when the majority of the fruits are green. If damaged fruit are found, determine the amount of damage present and the size and species of the worms.

UC recommends counting fruit as damaged if it has any hole deeper than 0.1 inch, if the hole is contaminated with feces, or if any larvae are present in the fruit. The treatment threshold is 3.25 percent damaged fruit.