The chief negotiator for the California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA) promises a “7” in this year’s base price for processing tomato growers.

Mike Montna, president and CEO, told growers at the association’s 66th annual meeting recently that movement of paste products has been good this year and growers deserve to see a “7” in front of that 2013 base price.

That is not far off the 2012 base price of $69.40, but when average yields reach into the 50-ton range, a few pennies can mean a lot of money per acre. It is even more significant when yields are way above average.

Montna said the growers association has made an initial offer of 74 cents per ton. Processors have countered with a base of 67.80. USDA projects contracted acreage of 261,000 acres with an estimated yield of 49.81 tons per acre for a contract target of 13 million tons.

The 2013 estimate is 364,000 tons higher than last year’s actual crop of 12.636 million tons.

A statewide yield of 49.81 tons per acre would be another record for the industry. It would be 1.21 tons per acre higher than last year’s 48.6 tons per acre. The 261,000 acres expected to be planted for 2013 is just 1,000 acres more than last year’s acreage.

Montna says these increasingly higher yields are coming with the installation of drip irrigation and improved varieties.

He called the California processing tomato industry the “envy of the world” with a 12-month movement of more than 13 million tons. Bolstering this was a 14.5 percent increase in exports last season.

Price negotiations are ongoing and Montna is “optimistic” an agreement can be reached soon.

Growers need to have that “7” in front of it for this year’s price. Marketing conditions and increasing growing costs justify it, he said.

CTGA represents about 53 percent of the state’s tomato growers, a record for the association.

Hybrid varieties are a key factor in increasing yields; however, getting the seed for those varieties is an expensive and long-term process, according to Steve Schroeder of Nunhems, USA, a division of Bayer Crop Science.

Hybrids historically have out-yielded open pollinated varieties and are more widely adapted with consistent yields.

Hybrid seed is produced overseas in China, Southeast Asia, Chile and other South American countries where labor costs are low.

Hybrid seed production is a 150-day growing and harvest process, including a 60-day pollination period. Schroeder said it requires 2,000 people working every day for 60 days to get enough seed to supply the California market. This does not include the labor for staking, planting and harvesting the crop. Add in processing and shipping and it adds up to a two-year process. Seed for this year’s California crop was produced in 2011, he says.

“You need to look a year in advance to plan for seed,” added Schroeder.

With countries like China rapidly improving their economy, labor may get short for hybrid seed production. Seed suppliers may have to look elsewhere to continue producing the seed. “People are moving from agricultural jobs to manufacturing jobs” and that creates labor shortages.

Groundwater scrutiny coming

The threat of bad weather at planting prompts companies like Nunhems to keep a two-year supply of planting seed on hand. However, that reserve, said Schroeder may not cover all varieties growers want, if there is widespread replanting.

Drip irrigation has had a tremendous impact on virtually every crop produced in the state since it was introduced into California more than 35 years ago. Drip was embraced first by permanent crop growers. It soon moved into high value vegetable crops like processing tomatoes. Over 90 percent of processing tomatoes on the West Side of the SJV are drip irrigated.

Drip has not only saved water, increased yields and generally fine-tuned pesticide and fertilizer use, it has all but eliminated irrigation surface runoff.  This runoff has been a major regulatory focus for the past couple of years as agriculture comes under state and federal clean water acts.

(See related, Groundwater nitrogen dilemma in California)

However, that water quality focus has shifted to groundwater within the past year as a statewide assessment of water points a finger at nitrate-tainted drinking water.

“Conversion to drip has solved the runoff issue, but it has not solved the nitrogen in the groundwater problem,” University of California, Davis vegetable crops specialist Tim Hartz told the tomato growers.

Legislators and regulators are moving rapidly toward regulating nitrogen use in the wake of a scathing UC groundwater study that cited widespread high nitrate in drinking water.

The regional water quality control boards established to monitor and mitigate surface water degradation are now focusing on groundwater. In the coastal areas, the regulatory hammer has been of the sledge variety. Regulators there are demanding growers use and harvest all the nitrogen applied or available. They want no N left behind in the field after harvest. That is called 1.0, but those regulations are on hold for now.

Dairies were the first agricultural segment to come under the groundwater nitrate regulatory microscope in the central valley. They are targeted for 1.4, which means a nitrogen application target of 1.4 times a forage crop’s N uptake to minimize N leaching.

The regional water quality control board governing California’s Central Valley has now turned its groundwater attention to crops and is developing data on potential groundwater N pollution for major valley crops based on current practices. Tomatoes are not in the initial list of crops to be evaluated, said Hartz. However, they will eventually come under scrutiny.

Hartz provided guidelines on how growers can dodge the bullet now by paying closer attention to nitrogen use.

Determining nitrogen use

In determining N use, start with the amount of nitrogen left after the crop is harvested and work back. Nitrogen applied to the field, but not used by crop or removed in harvested product is viewed as a risk for eventual loss to the environment, says Hartz. This is what growers should strive to reduce or eliminate.

One of the first steps in budgeting nitrogen is to start with how much nitrate nitrogen is in the soil before the first seasonal N is applied.  This varied widely in 29 fields Hartz monitored in developing his research.

Hartz says each part per million nitrate nitrogen in the soils represents 4 pounds of nitrogen per acre in the top foot of soil. Therefore, N credit could be as much as 4 pounds of N per acre for each ppm of nitrate nitrogen above 5 ppm, he says.

In order to determine how much N is in the soil, Hartz says to sample in the drip wetted zone of the field below the first 2 to 3 inches of the soil. Do not sample bed shoulders.

Pre-plant fall and spring organic amendments also add to the soil nitrate nitrogen levels, and these must be factored into nitrogen budgeting.

To estimate soil nitrate nitrogen that could wind up in leachate, he suggests multiplying nitrate nitrogen by three or four. For example, he says if root zone soil nitrate nitrogen is 15 ppm, leachate is likely to be 40 to 60 ppm.

In processing tomatoes, nitrate nitrogen loss is likely to be in the range of five to 15 pounds of nitrogen per acre inch of water. Tissue analysis can improve N efficiency during the growing season. However, Hartz says, tissue analysis, as currently used, “more often leads to increasing a grower’s normal N fertilization program than decreasing it.”

Here are some guidelines Hartz offered for both evaluating leaf N and petiole N. Leaf N evaluation is more reliable now than petiole sampling.

Leaf N from 20-fields indicated:

• Three to seven weeks post-transplant leaf N may indicate limited soil N availability, but plant N update is not rapid enough to put a strain on soil N supply; therefore, high values do not necessary indicate high soil N.

• Seven to 11 weeks post-transplant is a period of peak N uptake and leaf N can fall rapidly; by the first red fruit stage leaf N comfortably above the sufficiency level indicates that N fertigation can stop.

• Eleven weeks until post-transplant: After first red fruit fields with very low leaf N are candidates for continued fertigation; high leaf N pre-harvest indicates excessive nitrogen applications.

Petiole nitrate nitrogen data from 20 fields indicated:

• Three to seven weeks into the season very low petiole nitrate nitrogen indicates limited soil N availability. However, in the sufficient range, higher values do not necessarily indicate more soil N.

• Seven to 11 weeks is when petiole values fall rapidly and it is difficult to set a sufficiency level. However, Hartz said maintaining 4,000 ppm nitrate nitrogen through first red fruit is not required.

• Eleven weeks through post harvest. After first red fruit, the only thing that petiole analysis can tell a grower is that excessive N has been applied.