California’s processing tomato harvest is in full swing with good yields and crop quality despite a growing season delayed by the cool, wet spring and moderate summer temperatures.

Such is the life for many California farmers this year. Crop production in general is one to two weeks behind normal. This year is a repeat of last year’s growing season weather which has some farmers scratching their heads wondering if this reoccurring weather pattern is the new norm.  

“It is nice weather to work in, but it doesn’t ripen tomatoes very well,” said Bruce Rominger, a processing tomato grower at Rominger Brothers Farms in Winters, Calif., in western Yolo County.

In mid August, Rominger had neared the harvest halfway point; about 10 to 14 days behind schedule.

“The tomato quality is fine but the yield was down about 5 tons per acre on some of my early planted fields due to weather,” Rominger said. Later-planted tomatoes were generating average yields.

“We’ve had very few heat spikes (this summer) compared to normal when hot temperatures can hold for a week,” Rominger said. “Now the temperature gets down into the 50s at night and only in the low 90s in the day for a few hours and then it cools off again at night.”

About 800 acres of processing tomatoes are grown on the Rominger family’s 4,000-acre farm.

Rominger reported some expected incidents of weather-caused plant disease including bacterial speck. June rains caused Southern blight disease in several fields with some plant death.

Due to Rominger’s cooler growing location, he has early delivery contracts with the cannery. His first plantings in mid March were followed by mid-season plantings a month later. Rominger kicked off the harvest July 26; normal is July 10-15. Harvest could extend into mid September – several weeks behind schedule.

About two-thirds of Rominger’s crop is furrow irrigated with the balance watered by buried drip.

The 2011 California processing tomato grower contract price is $68 per ton. The price fell short of Rominger’s hopes.

“Tomatoes are not a real good return on investment (at $68) especially with the weather risks in Northern California with two cold wet springs in a row,” Rominger said. “A price in the $70 per ton range would have been better.”

In Fresno County, processing tomato grower Don Cameron of Helm reported similar planting and harvest delays, disease issues, plus some light hail in several fields which fortunately did not cause enough damage to reduce yields. Armyworms were found on plant foliage in later-planted fields.

Cameron, general manager of Terranova Farms, said in early August his crop was running 10 days behind schedule. Planting occurred from mid March through mid April.

This year, Terranova Farms has about 1,600 acres of processing tomatoes; all 100 percent transplants irrigated by buried drip. Plants are grown in 60-inch beds with a single row.

Contract price

Like Rominger, Cameron, a 20-year tomato veteran, had hoped for a higher contract price.

“I would prefer a price in the $70 per ton range; a seven as the front number instead of a six,” Cameron said. “Our expenses continue to rise with fuel, fertilizers, and labor plus we always have equipment needs.”

Cameron hoped higher prices for competing crops would bring higher tomato prices.

“There is a surplus of tomato products so the carryover weighed on the market,” Cameron said. “$68 was a compromise.”

Cameron’s yields have been excellent; even record setting in some fields.

“We are probably averaging in the low 60 tons per acre range,” Cameron said. “Three or four fields yielded more than 70 tons per acre. That’s a record yield for us.”

Mike Montna, California Tomato Growers Association president and chief executive officer, said the statewide California processing tomato crop was 24 percent harvested as of mid August. The 2009 crop was 39 percent complete for the same time period.

Montna expects the processing tomato harvest will wrap up in mid to late October. This year’s crop should total about 12.2 million tons; close to last year’s figure. Average statewide yields could average 47 tons per acre.

“The (mid August) reports from the field indicated good tomato quality,” Montna said.

California growers produce about 95 percent of the U.S. processing tomato crop. The production belt stretches roughly from Kings County in the south to Colusa in the north including the Interstate 5 corridor.

Fresno County is the largest processing tomato-producing county in California with about 4 million tons harvested last year.

Statewide contract acreage this year is 258,000 acres, down from 271,000 acres last year. The grower value of the industry is about $866 million.

Montna said, “I think $68 per ton is a fair and reasonable price for 2011 given the current market conditions and growers’ cost increases.”

Last year’s contract price was $65 per ton.

cblake@farmpress.com