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IN SEASON / RUSS PARSONS

It's the Year of the Tomato

June 25, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

The California tomato crop did not wait for the first day of summer to get rolling this year. In fact, the harvest has been booming along at a torrid pace for the last couple of weeks.

Already, California growers have harvested 8,750 tons more tomatoes than they had at this time last year. And, says Ed Beckman, director of the California Tomato Commission, quality has been outstanding as well.

As a result, tomatoes are selling at retail for 30 cents to 50 cents a pound less than at this time last year.

"The weather this spring has been ideal," Beckman says. "[Ninety percent] of the tomatoes picked this year have been the best quality grade, USDA No. 1. Last year we were lucky to get 70%. And this year more than half of the tomatoes have been extra-large size."

Most growers would rather forget the last two harvests. In 1995, after devastating spring floods and rainstorms, tomato prices skyrocketed as farmers pulled out damaged plants and replaced them with new stock. Then, in early July when all those plants began to bear fruit, prices plummeted. From one week to the next, wholesale prices for tomatoes fell by almost half. Two weeks later, they halved again.

Last year, prices started low and stayed that way. Beckman says prices to growers stayed at or below the cost of production for almost the entire season. This year, despite lower retail prices, growers have made money.

"Despite the fact that there are so many tomatoes in the system, the prices our growers have been getting have been much higher than last year," he says. "Everyone is sort of in comfort mode. The next couple of weeks, when we start to move out of the first fields, then we'll see what happens."

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