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IN SEASON : The Tomato as Yo-Yo

August 10, 1995|RUSS PARSONS

Remember a month ago, when tomatoes cost roughly the same as they had in mid-January? Growers predicted then that the market couldn't last. And it didn't.

Tomato prices dropped so low last week that many growers across the San Joaquin Valley stopped picking.

"When you're only getting $2 a [25-pound] box [at wholesale], you're not even covering the cost of picking," says Tim McCarthy of Merced's Central California Tomato Grower's Co-Op. "There were a lot of red fields."

That may not sound so bad to the back-yard gardener, but in the produce industry, tomatoes that are red-ripe on the vine are too soft to pack and transport. "Mother Nature ended up getting a lot of those tomatoes," McCarthy says.

At the start of July, by contrast, in a harvest delayed by an unusually cool spring, just half as many tomatoes had been picked in June as for the same month the previous year. Tomatoes sold for as much as $17 a box. Two weeks later, the harvest picked up to a pace that was ahead of 1984.

Talk about zero to 60. . . . With that many tomatoes being picked in that short a time, the bottom dropped out of the market.

Now, after growers pulled several days' worth of tomatoes out of the production pipeline, the market has stabilized. But it looks like prices will hover in the $4- to $5-a-case range for the rest of August.

In the supermarket, that translates into specials as low as four pounds for $1, making tomatoes one of the few true bargains in the storm-plagued produce section this summer.

"That's not normally a very good price [for growers], but it's not bad for August," McCarthy says. "There's a lot of competition: a lot of home-grown, a lot of gardens, a lot of roadside stands. It's just a good tomato month."

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