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Summer heat could produce early end to local tomato deals

It's summertime, which means baseball, fireworks and barbecues as well as the time of the year when everyone's inner farmer is released as they put in a few tomato plants in their backyard gardens and pretend they know what they are doing.

In aggregate, these millions of tomato plants produce tens of millions of tomatoes and affect commercial production. In addition, legitimate seasonal growers throughout the country — challenged by terrain and weather most of the year — see the summertime as their chance to put their thumbprint on the fresh produce industry.

Consequently, commercial producers of vine ripes, specialty tomatoes and mature greens in California and Baja California plan for light demand through July and most of August and reduce their acreage at this time of year. Of course it's a balancing act as what makes those local and regional deals seasonal is an uncertain weather pattern. Western growers never know if perfect weather will prevail and push those deals into September or the summer heat will catch up with the crops and end them early.

This year, it looks like the latter is the case.

"The good news this year is that there has been extensive heat in the middle of the country, and it looks like the local deals are going to end early," said Joe Bernardi, president of Bernardi & Associates Inc., which is located in Nogales, AZ. "I think the last half of August and all of September we are going to see better-than-normal markets for our California tomatoes. We'll see better pricing than it has been. It's going to be pretty good."

Mr. Bernardi, who was operating out of his California office in the San Joaquin Valley, said California growers are expert at playing the supply-and-demand game, so they won't chase the market too high and kill it. "I don't think we'll see it go through the roof, but we will see it at the top end of what is normal."

Stuart Gilfenbain of Eclipse Berry Farms LLC, located in Oxnard, CA, has analyzed the situation and come to the same conclusion. "We've seen a lot of hot weather throughout the country and on the East Coast for the last month," he said August 2. "What that does is bring on the local and homegrown deals faster than usual and it is going to end them sooner. Within about two to three weeks, we are going to see a much better f.o.b. for all the tomato varieties."

Eclipse specializes in the grape tomato, which Mr. Gilfenbain said has been mired in an oversupply situation for the past couple of months. Add to that the extra supplies of tomatoes in all the categories and the market has suffered.

A third tomato expert made it a hat trick with his analysis of this summer's tomato situation. Chuck Thomas, president of Thomas Produce Sales Inc., with headquarters in Nogales, spoke specifically about the vine ripe deal but sees the same good demand situation on the horizon. He said producers in Baja California have cut their production way back and won't be back into full production until mid-September. Oxnard producers were just getting underway at the time of this interview at the end of July and San Diego County was a few weeks into its deal but still several weeks away from what could be called good volume.

Surveying the country, he said regional producers in Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina have been hit with high heat and are suffering through a difficult drought. Production has been affected and he expects that the middle of August will see an end to most of the regional deals. By that time, California's production will have increased, but Mr. Thomas expects a fairly strong market to prevail. In fact, he expects the entire fall to yield good markets for tomato producers, at least until the industry transitions back to West Mexico, which is too far in the future to speculate about.