Rains the three weeks leading up to May 19 might put a dent in summer Arkansas tomato production, but growers still expect to begin shipping in the first week of June, about on time.

At least a foot of rain fell during that period in Southern Arkansas, said John Gavin, staff chairman of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service in Bradley County.

As a result of all that rain, as well as high winds, growers told Gavin that plants had 30-50% less fruit than usual for this time of year. And while fruit continues to set, it's too soon to tell whether late-season volumes will be affected, he said.

"We'll just have to wait and see if plants put fruit on top later," Gavin said. "The rains have hampered us. It will just take awhile to see what impact they've had."

Despite the rain, fruit quality looked "really good" as of May 18, said Gary Margolis, president of Gem Tomato & Vegetable Sales Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., marketer of Triple M tomatoes.

Also reporting excellent quality on fields that weathered the storm was Randy Clanton, owner of Hermitage, Ark.-based Randy Clanton Farms. The company expects to begin shipping light volumes about June 10, with normal volumes likely by about June 20, Clanton predicted.

The excessive rains increased disease pressures in Arkansas tomato fields, Gavin said. But Margolis reported very little disease pressure in Triple M fields.

Nevertheless, growers were expected to start shipping on time, in the first week of June, though early volumes could be lower, Gavin said.

Triple M expects to begin shipping about June 10, a typical start, with strong demand expected, Margolis said.

"There's a lot of interest - it seems to increase every year," he said. "We consider this to be the first local vice-ripe deal of the summer. Mexico's depressed right now, but we're looking forward to good promotions."

The expected slow start to the deal could benefit Arkansas growers, given the large number of late-season tomatoes shipping from Florida and corresponding weak markets, Clanton said.

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On May 19, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a price of $8.95 for 25-pound cartons of 5x6 loose mature greens from Florida, down from $12.65-13.65 last year at the same time.

Mid-June prices for Arkansas tomatoes the past three years have ranged from $10 to $17 for two-layer cartons of vine-ripe 4x4 - 5x5s, according to the USDA.

Markets were expected to follow the typical pattern, Gavin said: very strong at the beginning, and tapering off after that.

"Tradition holds that the first week or two Southern Arkansas gets the highest price of the season, then it comes down," he said. "But we're hoping for a good steady market all year."

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Tomatoes were planted on between 950 and 1,000 acres of land this year, similar to 2008, Gavin said. Roma acreage increased about 40 acres.

Roma acreage has increased slightly each of the past few years for Triple M, and 2009 is no exception, Margolis said. Romas will make up 20-25% of Triple M's tomatoes this season, he said.

In the past, Gem has marketed Triple M tomatoes as far south as Florida and as far west as California, but this season the company is capitalizing on the locally grown trend and concentrating its distribution in the Midwest, but some shipments are going as far east as Pittsburgh, Margolis said.