Farmer David Richter looks over developing tomato plants

Jun 8, 2022
Lack of water continues to slash California tomato acreage

David Richter has a good tomato crop going so far – but like many other farmers, not as much as in preceding years.

Richter, who farms near Knights Landing in Sutter County, California, cut his tomato acreage by 75 acres, mainly because his water allocation from the Sacramento River is 18%. Trying to make the allocation and other challenges work for this year’s crop is “like putting a puzzle together,” he said.

“I’ve done 42 of these now since I’ve been out of college, and we always say, well, this is different than what we’ve had,” Richter said. I don’t know what to expect.”

Tomato processors have, or soon will have, contracts for 11.7 million tons of tomatoes, grown on 234,000 acres, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down from the January forecast of 12.2 million tons. That would represent an increase from the nearly 10.8 million tons grown in 2021, if it comes to fruition – a dubious proposition in some quarters.

“I just don’t think we’re going to get there,” said Mitchell Yerxa, who farms tomatoes in Colusa County. “I think everyone hopes that they’ll have enough water to get them all the way through,” but “if that groundwater, that river gets low, it’s going to be tough.”

Mike Montna, president and chief executive of the California Tomato Growers Association, said the California tomato crop has averaged about 6.9% below the USDA estimate for the past three years. That “doesn’t mean we can’t hit that number, but recent history says you’re going to be something less than that,” he added.

While acreage in the USDA report is up – USDA estimates 5,000 more acres than the final total for 2021 – Montna said that does not reflect more water supplies; it reflects hard decisions on the part of the farmer. Tomato acreage on a given farm that rivals the 2021 crop “almost all the time will mean that he fallowed some ground on some other commodities that he planted last year and focused his water on tomatoes,” he said.

The biggest obstacle between the fields and the canneries, by far, is water – or lack thereof.

“Up and down the state, people are challenged with their water supply,” said Bruce Rominger, who grows tomatoes near Winters and is chairman of the CTGA board. “Even wells that we thought pumped a certain amount of water are now pumping less. People are struggling to get enough water.” His local irrigation district received a 0% allocation this year, which means Rominger is relying entirely on groundwater.

“What worries me the most is having a well fail, or some sort of water-supply issue,” Rominger said. “We’re walking a tightrope right now trying to irrigate what we have planted.”

Richter, who finished planting Memorial Day weekend, said weather extremes have also affected the young crop.

“We had to stop planting back in April because of the heat,” he said. “We stopped for three, four days. And a week later, we had frost damage out in the fields.”

Tomatoes are seeded in greenhouses the first week of January, Yerxa said; he normally starts planting the first week of March.

The danger zone for young tomato plants is 92 degrees and up, Richter said.

“You get a lot of burning,” Richter said. “You get soil temperatures in the 120s, and it’ll burn the plants.” To deal with that, he added, growers can pre-irrigate the field and plant at night.

“If you can get them in 7 to 8 hours before it gets in that 92-plus range, then they have a much better chance of survival,” he said.

Many growers also plant their tomatoes deep, Yerxa said. There are a couple of reasons for this: “No. 1, to keep them out of the wind, but also just in case there is a freeze, there’s plenty of plant matter below the soil that can then keep growing even if the freeze takes a little bit off the tops of the plants,” he said.

Yerxa said water issues were the main reason processors and growers agreed early on to a price of $105 per ton for this season, a boost from $84.50 last year. Since then, however, a litany of other price increases has hammered farmers’ bank accounts.

“We knew that there’d be a real short year on water, and that guys would have to be spending some money on expensive water,” Yerxa said. “We had no idea that the price of UN32 – the normal fertilizer used in tomatoes – we had no idea that price would double. That hurt a lot.” It’s also in short supply, he added, and “there’s a lot of talk about being a problem moving forward as well.”

Richter said he recently paid $5 per gallon for “red dye” diesel – fuel intended for off-road use and therefore exempt from road taxes – to power his tractors.

“I’m not farming as much, but I expect my diesel bill to be about the same as it was last year,” he said.

Labor is getting more expensive as well, he added: “We got the double whammy – wages are going up, and also the overtime clicked in on the same year,” he said, noting the minimum wage for larger employers going to $15 per hour and the overtime threshold dropping to eight hours in a day or 40 in a workweek.

All of this is likely to leave processors scrambling for all the tomatoes they can find.

“We’re going to start the year with tighter inventories than we had last year, and they were already tight to begin with,” Montna said. “We’ve had three years in a row of crops that were just shorter, along with an increased demand through the COVID surge.”

From 2016 to 2018, processors had 6 million to 7 million tons of inventory on hand, Montna said; the number now is in the range of 2.5 million tons. The shortage is not limited to the U.S., he noted.

“All the other countries have been trying to overproduce or produce the amount that they wanted, and globally, we’ve been coming up short,” Montna said. “I think the soundbite for this year is, really, global consumption of processed-tomato products will be whatever we can produce this year.”

Even as the 2022 crop grows in the fields, tomato farmers are already thinking about 2023.

“Next year, everybody’s very nervous,” Rominger said. “We’re going to have less water next year unless we have above-average rainfall. What are our costs going to do? Nobody has any idea. Are we going to add $2 more to the price of gasoline? Is it going to go back down? We just have no idea what next year will bring.”

That means tomato farmers and their customers are going to have to wait until they can know the challenges ahead.

“There’s a lot of question marks still out there with our supply,” Richter said, “so it’s going to be a roller-coaster ride, I’m afraid.”

—Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation; Photo: David Richter looks over tomato plants at his farm outside Knights Landing, California. Richter lowered his tomato acreage slightly this year because of a smaller water allocation brought on by the drought. Photo courtesy of Christine Souza.

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