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With the 2009 tomato season from California's Central Valley just getting underway, the multi-million-dollar question is how many tomatoes will be produced this year.

"We'd love to know what is going on in the Central Valley," said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for Andrew & Williamson in San Diego. "You want to know about the size of the crop?" asked Jeff Dolan of the DiMare Co. in Newman, CA. "So do I."

John Lupol, general manager of Ace Tomato Co. Inc. in Manteca, CA, agreed that it is very difficult to ascertain how current conditions are affecting this year's total crop. "Our fresh market product hasn't been affected but I know a lot of other people have."

There are a number of factors this year that are affecting the fresh market deal and making it very difficult to determine just how many acres are out there. First and foremost is the cannery tomato situation.

Processing tomatoes are a huge business in California's San Joaquin Valley and this year a record number of acres reportedly has been planted. More than 300,000 acres have been contracted representing an expected yield of more than 13 million tons. To put that in perspective, California's fresh market tomato production is typically in the 35,000-acre to 38,000-acre range according to some grower-shippers.

While processing tomatoes and fresh market tomatoes have quite a few common growers, the two crops are different and typically do not affect each other. In past years, some processing tomatoes have ended up in farmers markets when the fresh tomato market price skyrockets but that doesn't happen too often. And conversely, fresh market tomatoes would never end up in a cannery as they are different varieties and do not fit the needs of the canners. In addition, cannery prices would typically not reach the level of the fresh market price, making it economically infeasible to divert production to that arena.

However, contracted prices for processing tomatoes have increased tremendously in the past couple of years. For the 2009 season, the base price is $80 per ton, with an expected yield of an average of 45 tons to the acre. That $80 price figure is 60 percent greater than the $50 per ton paid just a few years ago. And the $3,600 per acre revenue is enough to convince many growers to give processing tomatoes a try this year.

The cannery price has gone up for a number of reasons including a strong export market and good prices for competing crops. Add to those factors a lack of inexpensive water and rising growing costs, which have caused many traditional processing tomato growers to cut back on their acreage. This has left somewhat of a seller's market for tomato growers.

"The canneries have had to look for more acreage anywhere they can find it," said Mr. Lupol.

Mr. Dolan concurred completely. "I've heard that they have even gone over to Salinas looking for land. I don't know if they were successful, but they tried." Mr. Lupol said that while the base price for cannery tomatoes is $80, "I've heard that they are offering as much as $84 per ton plus bonuses, and $90 for late-season tomatoes. Some growers are looking at those numbers and putting some processing tomatoes in."

He predicted that the end result will be a reduction of at least 10-15 percent in fresh market tomato acreage.

Mr. Dolan acknowledged that he did not know where the acreage would end up but guessed an even greater reduction. "If we are typically at 35,000 to 38,000 acres, this year we will be closer to 30,000 when the dust settles," he said. A reduction that great could represents as much as a 20 percent decline in volume over a typical year.

While the reduction in acreage has been across the board, Mr. Dolan said that there has been a "very significant decrease in Roma acreage this year [in the Central Valley]. It could be as much as 50 percent to 75 percent."

Roma varieties are a much smaller slice of the overall pie, so a huge decline in that acreage, while significant, does not equate to a huge decline in overall acreage. Mature green tomato acreage is the chief type in the San Joaquin Valley. Mr. Dolan said growing an acre of Roma tomatoes is much more expensive than growing an acre of mature greens. "If they are selling for the same amount, it doesn't make any sense to grow Romas," he said. "It is purely an economic decision."

As far as timing is concerned, Mr. Dolan said Mother Nature has brought the San Joaquin Valley crop on very fast this season. "We are going to start on Monday [June 8]," he said Thursday, June 4. "That's about a week early."

Considering the fresh market tomato price was currently very strong, he said the early start is a very welcome sight. But like everybody else who was interviewed, Mr. Dolan remembered a year ago when the good beginning of a potentially very successful season was delivered a fatal blow by what turned out to be a false Salmonella scare.

"That happened one year ago so you never know what's going to happen," he said.

(For more on the deal, see the June 15 issue of The Produce News.)