Baja tomato volumes comparable to last year and bigger for some

08/20/2010 02:05:02 PM
Susie Cable

Tomatoes from the Baja California region were slowed this season by atypically cool weather, but growers said overall volumes will be comparable to last year and bigger for some.

Mexico,’s Northern Baja California just ended the coolest July that San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce has seen in its 25 years of growing, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

Temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees lower than normal for much of the month, he said. The low temperatures and the accompanying weeks of fog delivered mixed blessings.

“It was scary at the beginning because tomatoes were coming on slow in San Quentin (Baja California) and we were several weeks behind our plans,” Munger said. “But because it’s cool, (the tomatoes are) probably healthier.”

The plants grow more slowly when it’s cool, which can lead to better quality, Munger said. As of Aug. 2, the weather was warming back up to normal, and San Quentin crops were in peak production, Munger said. Normal daytime high temperatures range from 85 to 90 degrees, he said.

Normally, Andrew & Williamson has a gap in production in August, but Munger said he doesn’t expect to see that this year because of the crop’s slow growth. Instead, he said strong volumes and quality are likely throughout the late summer season in Baja.

Munger said the market for roma tomatoes, Andrew & Williamson’s largest-volume tomato crop in Baja, was “very fair.” In early August, he said there was a good supply of tomatoes on the market, as is typical for midsummer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported on July 29 that 25-pound cartons of plum-type tomatoes crossing from Mexico through Otay Mesa, San Diego, were priced at $6.95-8.95 for extra-large and large sizes. Demand was light.

A year earlier, the USDA reported that prices were the same for extra-large roma varieties of plum-type tomatoes. They were priced at $5.95-8.95 for large sizes.

Jeff Dolan, field operations manager for grower-shipper The DiMare Co., Newman, Calif., said the market in early August had recovered from low prices in May, but prices were still only fair at best.

“It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s not a train-wreck levels,” Dolan said. “We need to have an average of $7 a box.”

Fresh Pac International, Oceanside, Calif., also grows tomatoes in the northern part of Baja California, in Colonet. Most of its tomatoes are romas, but it also grows vine-ripes, grapes and cherries. About 80% are grown under shade cloth, while the rest are field-grown, said Brian Bernauer, sales director.

By early August, Fresh Pac was on its second pickings, with new fields starting regularly and old ones dropping off. Bernauer said he expected peak production by late August.

Fresh Pac’s quality and sizing were good as of Aug. 2, and supplies should be good throughout the rest of the season, Bernauer said. Romas are expected to be available through January, but the other tomatoes will likely finish in November.

Bernauer said Fresh Pac’s volumes are expected to be higher, with about 25% more romas and 20% more vine-ripes, cherries and grapes. The increased volumes are due, at least in part, to planting more tomatoes under shade cloth. Each season, more of its crops are under shade, he said.

“It looks like that’s how Mexico is going,” Bernauer said. “You’ve got most people planting it that way.”

Typically, plants under shade cloth produce bigger volumes, but it’s more expensive to grow that way he said. Shade cloth helps protect plants from pests and disease, and fruit tends to be more consistent in size and color, Bernauer said.

Disease pressure can be high in northern Baja, but shade houses provide good protection and help produce good quality, Munger said. Shade houses lessen exposure to dust and wind, which can cause tomato scarring, and nearly completely eliminate pest problems, he said. They also offer a more controlled food safety environment as compared to open field growing.

Andrew & Williamson grows vine-ripe roma, vine-ripe round, cherry and grape tomatoes as its primary crops in San Quentin. All are in shade houses, but some are grown in the ground, while others are hydroponically grown.

Munger said he expects Andrew & Williamson to have good production throughout August and September, with availability of northern Baja tomatoes until mid-October. By early October, Andrew & Williamson is expected to be harvesting tomatoes from the desert region of central Baja.

Oxnard, Calif.-based Deardorff Family Farms’ Oxnard crops also were slowed by cool, cloudy and foggy weather in June and July, said David Cook, sales manager.

On Aug. 2, Deardorff was harvesting field-grown vine-ripe round and vine-ripe roma tomatoes. By then, temperatures had returned to normal, but production was not yet increasing as it normally would.

“Today, volume is the same as it was (a week ago),” Cook said on Aug. 2. “Typically, it increases all the time.”

DiMare started harvesting California tomatoes in mid-May in the Coachella Valley, and it is expected to harvest in the San Joaquin Valley into November. Cook said he expects Deardorff to continue harvesting tomatoes in Oxnard until late November.



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