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.