Tomato Demand Spurs Record California Crop Amid Drought

Cali Tomatoes
An estimated 14 million tons of processing tomatoes were harvested in California this year, the most ever and up 16 percent from last year. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California farmers who grow a third of the world’s processing tomatoes, the kind used for pasta sauce and soups, nurtured a record crop this year even as the state’s drought damped production of other vegetables.

An estimated 14 million tons of processing tomatoes were harvested in California this year, the most ever and up 16 percent from last year, according to the California Tomato Growers Association, a trade group for the $1 billion-a-year industry. Canneries such as Campbell Soup Co. paid $83 a ton, also the most ever.

“The price was at a point where guys felt they could take the water risk and put their limited water supplies on tomatoes instead of other crops,” said farmer Aaron Barcellos, whose family grows tomatoes and other crops on 7,000 acres about 110 miles (179 kilometers) south of Sacramento. “Processors needed to pay a price that would get the acreage in the ground.”

With 82 percent of California suffering from extreme drought after three years with record low rain and snow, the water distribution system is rationing supplies to the nation’s most productive agricultural region. Growers have been forced to drill wells, sapping already depleted groundwater. The dry spell is likely to boost food prices nationwide as farmers leave some land unplanted because they can’t irrigate, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Running Out

Some small rural towns have run out of water and had to connect to nearby communities. Surface water supply from rivers and reservoirs has been reduced by a third. The rapid growth in well drilling led to legislation to regulate groundwater pumping and use for the first time. Voters tomorrow are being asked to approve $7.5 billion in debt to upgrade aqueducts, reservoirs and pipelines to Southern California.

Processing tomatoes are different from the kind consumers buy in grocery stores for home consumption. They have thicker skins, to survive being stacked in trucks loaded with as much as 25,000 pounds. Processed tomatoes are picked ripe and red and typically canned within six hours. Fresh market tomatoes are picked green and then gassed with ethylene produced naturally by fruits to promote ripening.

California produces 95 percent of the tomatoes in the U.S, according to the tomato commission. Worldwide, growers last year produced 33 million tons, down 22 percent from a record set in 2009.

Campbell Soup

Food processors such as Campbell sought additional tomatoes from California to carry the company into the beginning of next year as worldwide production continued to remain at or below demand.

“Despite the drought conditions in the state, California experienced a record crop this year in tomatoes, which relied more heavily on groundwater resources than in prior years,” said Tom Hushen, a spokesman for Campbell. “We processed more ingredient this season to support Campbell’s needs this year as well as some of next year’s requirements.”

Agriculture consumes about 80 percent of all delivered water in the most populous U.S. state. California’s 80,500 farms and ranches supply everything from milk, beef and flowers to half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the U.S.

Because of the drought and water rationing, well drilling has doubled and even tripled in some counties as farmers scour for more water while paying escalated prices from other sources.

Drought Emergency

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in January declared a drought emergency and called for a statewide voluntary reduction of water use by 20 percent. In some places, residents now face fines of as much as $500 a day for wasting water.

California farmers have fallowed nearly a half-million acres of fertile land, costing the state’s economy an estimated $2.2 billion this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition.

Farmers who grow rice in California, for example, have left an estimated 130,000 acres unplanted, dropping production in the $5 billion-a-year industry by 25 percent from last year, according to the California Rice Commission.

“Farmers will experience, in some cases, pretty significantly reduced incomes this year,” said Tim Johnson, president of the rice commission.

Barcellos said his family had to leave about 30 percent of their land empty his year because they didn’t have enough water. They cut back on planting asparagus, onions, pomegranates, cotton and pistachios to focus on tomatoes.

“The hard part is when we are fallowing ground because we still have fixed expenses that come with that fallowed property that isn’t producing any income,” he said. “The higher price helps us make up for some of that loss on the other side but it is no home run by any means.”

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