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The Tomato Explosion : deck tk

In the face of skyrocketing imports of specialty varieties, the California tomato industry is struggling to reinvent itself.

September 10, 1997|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Leavitt walks the dusty rows of his tomato field, trying to explain what he's doing. On either side of him are massive 2-by-4 trellises taller than he is. They are bolted together to form a frame, and to those frames are strung taut strings. Tomato plants snake their way up the strings.

It's quite a sight, spread over several acres of the hot, flat land outside Firebaugh in the central San Joaquin Valley. And oddly enough, it somehow sums up the upside-down nature of today's fresh tomato industry.

What Leavitt is building out here is a way to grow hothouse tomatoes outdoors--essentially, an outdoor greenhouse. As California farmers scramble to maintain their edge in a tomato world gone awry, no idea seems too far-fetched. They're even talking about growing better-tasting tomatoes.

In the last five years, according to Department of Agriculture statistics, American tomato production has declined 20% while tomato imports have nearly tripled. What's worse, while California growers earn an average of 25 cents a pound for fresh tomatoes, imported tomatoes average more than 40 cents a pound, with some countries earning double that.

Mexico is the leader, primarily because of seasonality. Most of the 1.5 million pounds it exported to the United States last year were harvested in winter, when tomatoes will still ripen in Mexico's warm climate. Florida, the main U.S. source of winter tomatoes, has seen its production plummet more than 40% since 1992.

What worries California growers is that seasonality no longer seems to be the key. Mexico now exports tomatoes here even in summer.

Still more troubling to the growers is this: The second-leading exporter of tomatoes to the United States is the Netherlands, a country not known for its balmy clime. In fact, American imports of Dutch tomatoes have increased more than 800% in the last five years. And the Dutch are earning a whopping 80 cents a pound.

Almost all of those Dutch and Mexican summer tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, and almost all are specialty varieties: clusters of tomatoes still on the vine, tiny teardrop-shaped tomatoes and the yellow and orange round tomatoes that are showing up even in mainstream markets.

All of this has sparked a not-so-quiet revolution in the California tomato world. For consumers, it means more varieties and sometimes better flavor. For farmers like Leavitt, it means reinventing a business that has remained essentially the same in California for decades.

"For the first 25 years I was in this business, there were basically three kinds of tomatoes: mature-greens, vine-ripes and cherries," he says. "Now you've got all of these others. The last five years have been something else."

How many types of tomatoes are enough? According to Ed Beckman of the California Tomato Commission, supermarkets in the United States routinely stock eight to 11 kinds. Some, like the Larry's markets in Seattle, will handle up to 22 varieties.

"Our industry is diversifying," Beckman says. "Guys used to grow one type of tomato--maybe they always grew mature-greens, or just vine-ripes. Now they like to grow some Romas, some yellows, maybe an organic plot or two, and now some clusters, because they're selling well."

In one typical Southern California upscale produce department last week, the shopper had a choice of cluster tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, medium vine-ripe slicing tomatoes, mature-green tomatoes, cherry tomato clusters, cherry tomatoes in a box, hothouse tomatoes, jumbo vine-ripes and a special locally grown hothouse tomato.

Even in a less affluent neighborhood there were half a dozen choices: Romas, hothouses, tray-packs, cherries, large vine-ripes and clusters imported from the Netherlands.

So far, those specialty tomatoes are niche players. According to a survey done this summer by the California Tomato Commission, more than 80% of the tomatoes purchased in California supermarkets are still either extra-large vine-ripes, medium mature-greens or Romas. All the hothouse varieties together accounted for only 7% of sales.

But niche or not, they are important in the cutthroat world of supermarket produce departments.

"It's not necessarily the cluster tomato itself that's the draw, it's being able to say I offer X varieties of tomatoes," Beckman says. "Right now studies show the produce department is the determining factor in why a shopper chooses a store. It's more important that you can get it if you want it than if you actually want it.

"It's competition. As soon as one market adds one tomato, the others will say, 'Well, we need to go ahead and at least just test that one out.' "

The commercial varieties of most of these niche tomatoes were developed by Israeli agronomists. While American tomato breeders were focusing on small improvements in a few standard varieties, in Europe the world was being turned upside-down. The average value of Israeli tomato exports to the U.S. has increased from 20 cents a pound to more than 75 cents a pound in the last five years.

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