Aug 18, 2021
Heat, drought cutting into California tomato harvest

Mother Nature may have cranked up the thermostat, but Sutter County, California, grower Dave Richter said he still expects his processing tomatoes to reach the cannery in good shape.

When the temperature reaches 103 or 104 degrees – as it has on multiple occasions this year – the plant will shut down until it can recover, he explained.

“That just delays everything,” he said. “That’s why I think we’re running late.”

Sutter County is among California counties suffering from exceptional-drought conditions that now span half of the state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Richter, who partners with his cousin, Mark, under the Richter Brothers name, grows a variety of crops just across the Sacramento River from Knights Landing. He may be more fortunate than many other farmers: He said his crop this year shouldn’t be affected despite the drought.

“We aren’t getting cut off,” Richter said of his water supply. “We’ll finish up the crop. We’re getting towards the end of the irrigation season here. Even the late tomatoes usually will be done about early September irrigating.”

The crop itself looks to be about average or slightly better, he added, though he won’t know for sure until harvest wraps up in October.

California tomato farmers harvested 228,000 acres of processing tomatoes last year, the same as in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Tomato processors had, or planned to have, contracts for 11.6 million tons of fruit grown on 231,000 acres this year as of May 15. Five counties – Fresno, Kings, Merced, San Joaquin and Yolo – account for 71% of the state’s intended 2021 production, according to USDA. Fresno County is the leader, with 62,000 acres planted to processing tomatoes.

“I think the crop is going to be down statewide,” said Bruce Rominger, who grows processing tomatoes near Winters and serves as chairman of the California Tomato Growers Association. “We’ve had a very hot growing season, so that is affecting our yields up and down the valley.” As he spoke, his corner of Yolo County was looking at another triple-digit day.

“We had a couple of early heat spells well over 100 in May and June,” unseasonably hot for that early in the year, Rominger said. Heat in late summer can cause ripe, red fruit to soften, he added.

Earlier in the season, such heat can cause the flower on the vine to abort, in which case the tomato never gets going.

Mike Montna, president and chief executive of the California Tomato Growers Association, noted the original production estimate from the USDA in January showed 12 million tons. The revision to 11.6 million tons came two months before California’s record-breaking heat spells.

“That got people thinking 11.6 (million tons) probably is not in the cards,” Montna said of the July heat, adding that the early thinking is the harvest will be 5% off. Numbers are being re-evaluated regularly, and the next USDA estimate on Aug. 30 will show a clearer picture, Montna said.

While the 2021 crop appears secure, Richter said he is thinking ahead to 2022, and what might happen if California endures another dry winter.

“We’re getting surface water delivered from Shasta (Dam) on the Sacramento River,” Richter said. “It’s at about 1.2 million acre-feet right now, and Oroville’s 800,000…You’re looking at two lakes that have a capacity of 8 million.”

The conditions call to mind the drought of 1977, Richter said. Back then, he recalled, “We were like this, but I think we’re surpassing ’77. I know Lake Oroville is lower than ’77. There’s just more demand for water and more crops out there, more people.”

At his place, he said, “I’m going to look at where we do have wells and focus those wells – that land that has wells – for tomatoes. But we’re not set up with a bunch of wells.”

Tomato farmers, Montna noted, have to make grow/no-grow calls well before the rainy season stops.

“Growers start making decisions first part of January, end of December on dropping seed,” Montna said, referring to planting of seeds in greenhouses for future transplanting. “They’re going to need some kind of visibility of expectation of how much water they’re going to get and what they can plant. We don’t have the luxury of waiting till the end of the water year.”

Planting seeds, Montna said, represents a commitment of a certain amount of water.

“Each grower really has to make that individual decision based on how much permanent plantings they have, their well capacity, and then their risk, and then their return,” Montna said. “You have to take a leap of faith and a guesstimate as to what you think is going to happen based on your experience, based on what your water district may be reporting, what’s in the news, what do you see in the snow.”

Down the valley, Aaron Barcellos is looking at a much smaller harvest than in 2020.

“We used to have around 2,000 acres of tomatoes,” said Barcellos, who has fields from Los Banos to Firebaugh. “We’re down to about 900 this year, all due to the drought and water allocations. We just didn’t have the water to source for tomatoes.”

As a result, land that might have been planted with tomatoes instead lies fallow—and repercussions impact people who would have worked that land and suddenly have to move on.

For farmers, labor costs have risen significantly, Barcellos said. He noted the state’s rising minimum wage and gradual ratcheting down of the overtime threshold.

But he said, “Just keeping people has been really tough because there aren’t many people to go around, and they’re just jumping jobs” and moving on to “whoever’s going to pay them the most or give them the most hours.”

That’s especially true of seasonal people, said Barcellos, who has been able to keep most of his permanent workforce. “With us having so many acres fallow, we’ve had to let people go, or we just don’t have the hours that we would in the past,” he said.

Tomato growers can expect to be paid $84.50 per ton for this year’s crop, thanks to negotiations between the canneries and the California Tomato Growers Association. Barcellos said that was a fair price at the beginning of the season, but the rising price and scarcity of water and other inputs have taken a toll.

“The tomato crop is just such an expensive crop to grow, and there’s a lot of risk in it,” Barcellos said. “There just has not been really a very good return for farmers for the amount of risk they’ve been taking over the last four or five years in the processing-tomato business. It’s driven farmers away, and guys aren’t really excited about coming back.”

Barcellos said he’s looking to a brighter 2022, one he hopes comes with a better Sierra snowpack and more rain.

“I think you have to be an optimist as a farmer,” Barcellos said. “Optimistic for sure. Because if you’re not, it’s pretty depressing.”

Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation 

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