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IN SEASON

Tomato Mania

June 13, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

Since this time last year, the tomato market has been screwy. Finally, with the beginning of the 1996 harvest in the San Joaquin Valley, things are getting back to normal.

First, last year's spring rains put planting so late that prices were sky-high. Then in late summer, when all of those tomatoes were harvested at the same time, the price plummeted--along, in many cases, with quality.

Things got only weirder this winter. With storms and freezes hitting Florida and South Carolina, prices have been even higher and quality even worse this winter and spring.

"This year looks to be pretty much the opposite of last year," says Ed Beckman, president of the California Tomato Commission. "We've had a little better spring weather than average and that seems to be reflected in what we see in the field. Quality is very good considering it's the front of the season. Yield is very good too."

And with the East Coast harvests still winding down, wholesale prices are falling rapidly. Retail has not caught up yet, but Beckman says that will be changing this week or next. Look for retail prices in the 49 to 79 cents per pound range.

"We've already got promotions scheduled next week," he says. "We're going to need those because we're going to have a lot of tomatoes."

Last year's topsy-turvy tomato market chased away a lot of growers. Spurred by high prices the last couple of years, plantings were at an all-time high--between 37,500 and 38,000 acres of tomatoes. That's down to 35,000 acres this year, though with the good weather, the actual yield should be about the same.

Tim McCarthy, of the Central California Tomato Growers Co-Op in Merced, says that's good news. "We had gotten a lot of new growers in chasing that gravy train, playing that slot machine that's already paid off. Now they're off chasing another slot machine and the rest of us who have been growing tomatoes all along just keep on plugging."

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