Steady as she goes for the fall California/Baja tomato crop

08/19/2009 02:57:43 PM
Lance Jungmeyer

Tomato volumes from California are entering full-swing mode, with steady supply expected until late November.

Tomato imports from Baja California, meanwhile, are on summer recess, not projected to kick back in until October. They will last through the end of the year.

As bigger volumes get under way in September, Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing for Oceanside Produce Inc., Oceanside, Calif., said he expects a good crop. “In the field, it looks like they’ve done everything right,” he said.

As of Aug. 10, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $7.95 for 25-pound cartons of mature-green medium, large and extra-large rounds from Central California, up from $5.65-7.65 last year at the same time.

Twenty-five pound cartons of large and extra-large romas from Central California were $8.95, up from $8.65 last year at the same time.

Acreage for California is down significantly, perhaps as much as 20%, said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, Fresno, which represents a good chunk of the industry.

The reductions have been driven by a lack of water, as well as simple economics following tomatoes undeservedly being implicated in a salmonella scare last year and the current state of the economy, Beckman said.

Still, Jeff Dolan, field operations manager for DiMare Newman, Newman, Calif., is optimistic about the season, adding that it appears to be progressing “normally or better than normal.”

DiMare is selling round mature-greens, romas and yellow tomatoes.

For DiMare’s overall program, acreage is about the same as last year, with volumes projected to last until early November. “I’m more confident in our locations. I anticipate us having a good fall,” Dolan said.

In early August, Dolan characterized the markets as poor. “The market is predicated by what happens on the East Coast and in southern California. Now, they’re producing well,” he said.

John Lupul, general manager of Ace Tomato Co. Inc., Manteca, Calif., agreed, but said that East Coast weather conditions will affect quality down the stretch. While he said the markets have not been profitable so far, he expects a turnaround as fall progresses.

In particular, the roma market should trend upward as August progresses and less Mexican fruit is on the market.

Additionally, Lupul characterized roma plantings across California as down about 20%. Ace Tomato cut its acreage 10%, he said.

“I think the late summer, early fall deal will be good,” he said. “We hope for demand to pick up from early to mid-September.”

Ace Tomato expects to be done with its harvest about Nov. 3. “From mid-November to December, you’ll have your traditional gap in the marketplace before the Mexican deal kicks in,” he said.

Interfresh Inc. should have plenty of fruit until the first freeze or big rains, said Cory Puentes, director of Northern California for the firm, which is based in Orange, Calif.

As supplies from California wind down after November, imports from Baja California should pick up the slack until about the first of the year, he said.

Frank’s Distributing of Produce LLC/Bionova Produce of Nogales, Ariz., will re-enter the Baja tomato deal in October, said Montie McGovern, director of operations.

David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., said his company’s acreage is mostly steady, with some slight variations because of crop rotation. The company expects heavy volumes through the first half of November, with product winding down sometime in December.

For Oceanside Produce, planted fields are down about 180 acres this year. Normally the firm would have a little more than 1,000 acres, but this year it has 830 acres, Wilber said.

Wilber said it’s too soon to predict how buyers will react to the crop. “We enjoy selling the tomatoes, but it’s a lot more enjoyable when you can sell them and make a profit,” Wilber said. “Cheap prices don’t help growers, brokers, distributors or retailers.”

In times of poor markets or otherwise sluggish demand, the key is to have more than one type of tomato for sale, said Bob Schachtel, sales manager for Expo Fresh LLC, San Diego.

Expo Fresh, which already is selling romas, will begin its vine-ripe deal in mid-September. “It helps you to have both at the same time, even if one of the markets may not be good at the time,” Schachtel said.

Pinos Produce, San Diego, expects a “very light” crop this fall, with volumes kicking in around late September and winding down after November, said Danny Uribe, sales manager.

In all, tomato growers are looking for 2009 to be a rebound year, because last year was plagued with low pricing.

To be certain, last year’s tomato deal was “awful,” Cook said.

But while many lay blame for the problems on the false fingering of tomatoes in the food safety scare, that concern may be overblown, Cook said.

“Everyone points to the FDA fiasco. But a lot of it had to do with oversupply. It was a perfect crop from all ends,” he said, adding that this year’s market should start a lot better, given the weather affecting supply of tomatoes throughout the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest. And with portions of the San Joaquin Valley coming up short on water, Cook said he is optimistic about his company’s fortunes this year.



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