California and Baja California tomato grower-shippers continue their rebound from two difficult years.

Sales plummeted during the fall 2008 weeks-long search to determine the source of a salmonella outbreak. Tomatoes, it turned out, were not the source. Then in 2009, foodservice, which normally gobbles up the majority of California grown fresh tomatoes, was reeling from the recession.

The only cloud — so far — on this year’s West Coast tomato horizon has been an unusually cold and wet spring. As a result, the season is getting a late start.

“We’re a little behind, but we should start cranking up about mid-May,” said Steve Yasuda, sales manager at Royal Flavor LLC, San Diego.

Shipping of Baja California romas usually begins in late April.

In the San Joaquin Valley, early picking is scheduled to begin in late June. Volume will really begin to ramp up in July, said Bob Giampaoli, farm manager at Live Oak Farms, Le Grand, Calif.

The season also will be late arriving at Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, said David Cook, sales manager. Shipping is projected to begin in mid-July, he said.

The lone California growing region not negatively affected by spring weather was San Diego County. Picking is scheduled to start about June 20, which is about right on schedule for Oceanside Pole Tomato Sales Inc., Oceanside, said Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing. 

Inclement weather that damaged Southeast tomato crops could cut into midsummer supplies, but California grower-shippers will be up to the challenge, said Dean Janssen, general manager of Ace Tomato Co. Inc., Manteca, Calif.

“I think we’ll have plenty of tomatoes to meet the demand,” he said.

If the Southeast grower-shippers do not rebound quickly, prices could climb.


Two initiatives

As important as the crops to California grower-shippers are two new initiatives from California Tomato Farmers, the Fresno-based cooperative.

California Tomato Farmers was scheduled to launch the week of May 10 a new food safety and auditing protocol that uses science-based standards and is aimed at reducing the cost of documentation.

Members of the cooperative are particularly optimistic because retail and foodservice customers are supporting the initiative, said Ed Beckman, cooperative president.

The cooperative’s other breakthrough is a new Internet-accessed centralized database that provides all food safety documentation for all members of California Tomato Farmers. Retail, foodservice and the Food and Drug Administration will be able to visit the database for food safety details of all members.

“It’s never been done before in the fresh produce industry,” Beckman said.

Another advantage of the database, he said, is that it enables grower members to do a better job of food safety compliance.