Early-season rain and frost followed by record heat in May up and down the state are blamed for 10-15 percent yield drops in California's processing tomato industry, already down-sized 10 percent in acreage from last year.

Processing Tomato Advisory Board figures show just over 2.7 million tons harvested by Aug. 12, vs. about 4.2 million tons for the same time in 2000.

Last year's crop was 10.3 million tons from 285,000 contracted acres. The official 2001 crop forecast is 9.2 million tons from 255,000 acres, although some observers now doubt the crop will make 9 million tons.

With more than enough tomato products to go around, the lighter crop may be a blessing to ease the lingering inventory glut.

According to the California Tomato Growers Association, Inc., the national processed tomato total supply for 2000-2001 was 15.6 million tons, while the 11-month disappearance was 11 million, leaving a June 1 inventory of nearly 4.6 million tons, just a fraction less than that of a year earlier.

Mike Murray, Colusa County Extension director, says processing tomatoes in his county, at 20,000 to 23,000 acres this year, are down about 15 percent from last year.

Yields have been down, he said, to due a combination of reasons: lots of replanting after killing frosts in April and May, a streak of 100-degree days in May, more than normal fields with fusarium wilt, and ample alfalfa mosaic carried by leafhoppers moving out of foothills. Those growers who planted for 45-ton yields are glad they did.

“The season came on a week to two weeks early as the heat bunched up maturity and put processors working at full capacity,” he said.

Not much optimism

Murray went on to say that nothing much looks good, given depressed conditions for all crops. Returns from processing tomatoes won't be there without top-end yields.

Citing the $1,850 per acre production cost figure espoused by Gene Miyao, farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties, Murray says 35 tons at a $50-a-ton price only brings in $1,750 an acre.

“Some growers may think they can grow tomatoes at closer to $1,200, but they're only fooling themselves. The $1,850 takes in all costs, including interest and depreciation.”

Earlier this year, Murray analyzed the 2000 processing tomato season in his county. The crop was 750,000 tons, or 25 percent less than the 1 million tons of 1999.

The 2000 acreage was 21,000, in contrast to the 28,400 of the 1999 season and reflecting the migration of the industry from the Sacramento Valley to the San Joaquin Valley.

Yields for 2000 averaged 36 tons, up only slightly from the previous year's 35.7 tons, close to the average for most of the last five years.

Production costs up

In his annual report as Colusa County Extension director, Murray said production costs of processing tomatoes, as well as seed and other crops, have risen above depressed or static price levels.

With labor, dealer networks, refrigerated transportation, and processing facilities all scarce in the county, attempts to produce fresh vegetables stalled. Idled land formerly in vegetable crops has found no viable alternative uses.

In his capacity as a researcher, Murray said processing tomato growers in his county have turned more to transplants. “They clearly provide some potential benefits related to lower seed requirements and cost, reduced water use for crop establishment, additional weed control options, and less plant-thinning costs.”

But, he added, transplants have drawbacks too: reduced planting schedule options, additional costs for transplants or planting, and the possibility of introducing diseases from greenhouses.

e-mail: dbryant@primediabusiness.com