Tomato growers could have almost fallen asleep at the turn row this year and still have made out like a major league slugger. With little pest pressure, near perfect weather, and a decent contract, the only asterisk haunting this season is what to do with the surplus.

“Our tomato harvest is winding down, as is the case for the majority of southern Fresno County,” says Don Cameron, manager of Terranova Ranch at Helm. “There are some late fields, but most of the harvest is done. There have been some very impressive yields down this way — almost everyone has hit contract and more.”

That synopsis is as familiar as an organ grinder’s ballpark melody this season, with all areas reporting near- or above-record statistics for processing tomatoes.

“We’ve been harvesting for a week or so,” says Mark Vierra, PCA with Helena at Merced. “I’ve heard 73 tons per acre on drip in one case. It’s unbelievable — even 60-ton yields are being reported on a fairly regular basis. Some growers are already disking their fields because they can’t sell the overage.”

But, there are a couple of dark clouds looming. Even under very favorable weather conditions, Vierra says, there are some reports of black mold showing up as harvest progresses.

“We’ve got such a huge crop that we didn’t grow the canopy necessary to shade the fruit,” he says. “We’re also seeing some vines that are crashing hard just as we approach harvest. We’re not sure why that’s happening. It almost looks like powdery mildew, but we don’t know. UC is looking into it.”

Meanwhile, it’s quality that keeps the U.S. processing tomato business a viable player in the worldwide game. Cameron and other colleagues, including Ross Siragusa, president of the California Tomato Growers Association, recently returned from a trip to China where they toured tomato processing operations.

“China now produces between 4 to 5 million tons per year, primarily for paste production,” he says. “They’re the third largest producer in the world, and they’re committed to increasing production — which they will do, if they can overcome obstacles. Their delivery system lacks promptness, which causes deterioration of the tomatoes before they get to the plant.

“But, they do have potential and shouldn’t be underestimated. They sell domestically, as well as to many other countries, including the European Union and Soviet countries, with a small amount to the U.S. The biggest problem thus far has been low quality.”