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Huge tomato crop takes shine off 93-ton field for Kings County grower

Record books are often the realm of the unfathomable:

  • Two grand slam home runs by the same batter in the same inning;

  • A comeback from 50 points down at halftime by a quarterback who tosses seven touchdown passes;

  • 100 tons of California processing tomatoes per acre.

The third of those highly unlikely prospects came tantalizingly close to reality when a first-time Kings County, Calif., processing tomato grower recorded 93 tons of tomatoes per acre on a 160-acre block among the 620 acres he grew this season.

It was the mother of all yields. It came in the mother of all California processing tomato growing years, when 75 tons per acre was commonplace and 80 tons or more was real — not coffee shop-bragging. Most of the higher yields came from tomatoes grown on twin line, 80-inch beds.

Brad Johns, the farmer who gathered the 93 tons, logged 65 and 70 tons per acre from fields that were “damaged” by frost early on. He has averaged about 70 tons on the 500 acres of buried drip-irrigated processing tomatoes harvested, so far. What is even more remarkable is that Johns' tomatoes were grown on 60-inch beds. The irrigation system was from Netafim.

With about a month to go in the harvest season, California canneries should have no problem getting the 13.3 million tons they contracted for from the 308,000 acres planted. The USDA California ag statistics office projects an average yield of more than 43 tons per acre by the time the last fields are harvested later this fall. This would also be a record. That average includes many fields hit by frost and a few by hail. Yields are up 10 percent to 15 percent across the board in the major tomato producing areas because 2009 was a perfect tomato growing year.

Canneries may actually process 13.5 million tons, even though portions of some fields were disked under because processors were delivered agreed upon field tonnage on only a portion of a field and moved on to other contract growers.

Canneries contract for tomatoes based on a delivery schedule to allow them to efficiently process the perishable crop. By the middle of September, canneries were running a week to 10 days behind because of the large yields.

Johns, a second-generation Kings County family farmer and a California State University, Fresno graduate, should be the talk of the industry with the 93 tons. However, John and his wife Ellen were in emotional turmoil. An unprecedented year in the tomato industry ensnared them in a situation where what happens in the next 30 days will determine if they can call the year a success or failure.

How can 93 tons of tomatoes per acre be part of a disaster? Because one-sixth of the 600 acres of tomatoes they grew in partnership with one of the state's largest tomato packers was left behind with a promise to bring the harvesters back to finish. It has been a month's wait so far because the canneries are backed up. All they can do is hope and wait. “The difference between success and failure depends on whether the harvesters come back to finish the job,” bemoans Johns.

Unlike large acreage growers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, Johns cannot afford to lose the income off 100 acres, especially since much of his ground is rental ground and his landlords cannot afford to take a loss.

The partnership between Morning Star Packing Co. and the Johns was a marriage of necessity. Johns was looking for a crop that would preserve his family's farm and Morning Star was looking for places and farmers with available irrigation water to produce processing tomatoes for a growing marketplace. This was Morning Star's first year as a “tomato grower” with 5,000 acres grown in partnership with growers. Most of it was in what could be called non-traditional tomato growing areas like eastern Kings and Merced counties and the Hollister area.

Morning Star joined other major tomato processors like Los Gatos Tomato Products, J.G. Boswell and Ingomar Packing, all Central Valley tomato processors owned by growers who supply at least some of the tomatoes for their plants if not all of the fruit. They have more control over their economic destiny than processors who only contract for all their tomatoes. This is particularly important in a year when the contract price was at a record.

Rene Rianda, acquisition colleague at Morning Star based in Woodland, Calif., said the company went looking for grower joint ventures to become more vertically integrated. It already had trucking and harvesting equipment.

“The world is eating tomato products like crazy, despite the poor economy, and we need to supply that demand,” she said, adding Morning Star is looking for more growers for partners in 2010.

That long established processing tomato supply pipeline sprung a leak when water was cut off on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley with a judicial/natural drought. Endangered Species Act rulings and three years of below average snow and rain forced state and federal water purveyors to basically shut off water supplies to the sprawling West Side where 40 percent of the state's processing tomatoes are traditionally grown.

SJV East Side farmers like Johns have good water and land, but it is in relatively small blocks compared to the large acreage expanse on the West Side. Johns read an article in Western Farm Press last summer about Morning Star's unique two-row tomato harvesters and called them.

“I looked at my cropping options and there was no row crop that made sense, except tomatoes,” said Johns. His farm is surrounded by trees and vines and no permanent crop offered him a future, either, he added.

“I contacted Morning Star in February, and they sent a grower rep to see me. We planted the first tomatoes on March 25. It happened so fast.

“The transplanters literally followed the drip tape machine into the field as it was pulling out,” Johns said.

Johns and Morning Star were shooting for 50 to 53 tons per acre, which is about what West Side growers average.

“We had an absolutely perfect spring aside from the early frost. We still got 65 and 70 tons off those frosted fields. We set all the flowers on the plant. We have no salt in our water and no salt in the ground. It was a perfect storm,” he said.

Johns' agronomist Brock Taylor noted that weather in May, June and July was ideal, with cooler than normal day and nighttime temperatures. “We did not have many days in June and July with temperatures over 100. May and June nighttime temperatures were about six degrees below normal.

“Weather-wise, particularly early, was perfect,” said Taylor, who was the consulting agronomist on about 3,000 acres of the 5,000 acres in the Morning Star grower partnerships. All were new tomato growers. He was the agronomist on a total of 10,000 acres this season.

It has been one of the best tomato seasons Taylor can recall. This season has convinced Taylor a 100-ton processing tomato yield is achievable. Continually improving varieties, spoon-feeding the crop water and nutrients via drip irrigation, and 80-inch beds are three reasons he believes the magical 100 tons is possible.

Since 1982, state average yields have almost doubled. The year 2000 was one of the better recent years and average yields that year were just over 37 tons. That year was the largest crop recorded until 2009.

He expected to find potassium shortages in many of the East Side fields, but the deficit didn't materialize. He put about 200 pounds of K on Johns' tomatoes and that was sufficient.

He used about 225 pounds of N.

Johns says that is less than what he applied to corn.

“My wife and I spoon-fed the tomatoes through the drip system using the schedule given to us,” he said. It did not hurt that for the past two years Johns has grown field corn on the tomato ground. “I figure what we disked back in from the corn was worth about $80 per acre in fertilizer costs,” he said.

Brad and Ellen were guided through each phase of the growing season. “Brock and our PCA Jeff Jorgensen did an incredible job. Danny Ramos of Lucreo Farms, the farming arm of Morning Star, was the ringmaster of the whole thing. We could not have done this on our own like we did the first year. We provided the land and the manpower to irrigate.”

It was demanding, however, often with three-hour water changes. “It was a 24-hour a day job for my wife and me,” he says.

“I have grown new crops, and it takes a three year learning curve to get it down. We skipped the first two years with all the help we had on the tomatoes,” he said.

Insects were virtually non-existent. “We are 60 miles from the closest tomato field. I think all the orchards around us confused any of the tomato insects,” he added.

“I call our farm in the deal with Morning Star the company store. All the people involved in the growing process were incredible to work with. There was a team of people for everything that was done to the tomatoes. It was very well orchestrated,” he said.

Does he expect to repeat 2009?

“No, not really. It was a perfect situation. I may never hit 90 tons again, but it was a great year … except for gophers.”

That has proven the one big downside to the drip tape irrigated tomatoes. “They can turn a drip field into a sprinkler field,” he said. “As long as the drip system is pressurized, they leave the tape alone. Turn it off and they munch away.

“We probably put out 30,000 Phostoxin tablets this year,” he says.

He hired one man and bought an ATV for the sole purpose of inserting the tablets into the soil for gopher control. “I think we got control of them in our fields. Unfortunately, they continue to come from neighboring orchards.”

The 100 acres yet to harvest in late September have turned what should be a reason to rejoice into a contentious season with the Johns and taken the shine off the 93-ton yielder. When he and Morning Star shook hands on the tomato deal, there was no contract signed. He has an e-mail that indicated the contract would be for all the tonnage he produced in a profit sharing agreement with Morning Star.

Unfortunately, the Johns found themselves at the mercy of the huge crop. The harvesters had to pull out of John's fields to harvest for other growers with delivery schedules to meet with 100 acres left to harvest for Johns. The 600-acre contract he received with 100 acres left to harvest was 43 tons per acre, basically an acreage contract.

“The area where we farm is third and fourth generation small mom-and-pop family farms,” he said. “I cannot afford a tonnage contract because myself and the landlords cannot afford to leave fields unharvested. Large West Side growers with larger fields can afford that; we cannot,” Johns said.

“We were sitting on top of the world with the yields we got, but it has been a very stressful time for my family as we wait to see what happens with that last 100 acres. I have continued to water it and have applied a fungicide after the rain we had in mid-September to try to hold the crop until the harvesters come back as promised.”

He says Morning Star has promised to return with harvesters and finish his crop. “We cannot afford to lose one sixth of our income. One of my landlords drilled a new well to grow tomatoes. I loaned him the money for that well, and the tomatoes on that field have not been harvested,” he says.

Johns said if the issue is not resolved, the drip system will come out and he will be out of the tomato business. “I have been offered a good corn-nut contract since I own a combine. This tomato thing is too stressful on the family the way it is turning out,” Johns said.

It was a good deal until the reality set in about the largest tomato crop in history.

Large West Side growers have experienced huge crop swings in the past. However, most of them can weather it with many different, large acreage fields. Over tonnage in one field can be offset with lower tonnage in another field. And some of the big fields on the West Side are used to open canneries for the season, and those fields are delivered on a tonnage contract since they are early and more risky to grow.

“Processing tomatoes is an expensive, risky business,” says one large, West Side grower who asked not be identified. “You are looking at an investment of $2,300 per acre or more to grow tomatoes. In years like this you may have to disk under tomatoes. There have been years when there were too many tomatoes and they were fed to sheep. There have been years when every tomato is harvested because the crop was short. It is a tough business.”

Long time growers have experienced not only the crop size swings, but big swings in price. This year's crop was contracted for $80 per acres. Five years ago it was $50. With a potential 13.5 million ton crop this year, growers are already hearing prices will go down next season.

While considerable political pressure is being applied to resolve the water issue on the West Side of the Valley for more water to be delivered, realistically the water shortage is not likely to be mitigated by 2010 and maybe well beyond next year.

California grows more than 90 percent of the processing tomatoes grown in the U.S. where demand is growing for tomato products. Export demand is also increasing, particularly with the current favorable exchange rate for U.S. products that allows the U.S. to land tomato products in Europe at a competitive rate. The U.S. quality is considered to be second to none.

Demand for tomato products from the U.S. can only be met in the U.S. in California. However, to meet the demand canneries will be forced to contract with smaller growers like Johns, which changes the dynamics of the industry. As Johns said, he and other new, small acreage growers cannot afford to take losses and survive to grow another year.

Compounding this is the fact growers are actually taking out poor performing orchards to plant row crops, a dramatic change of events from recent years as growers have switched to permanent crops.

Another trend is that dairymen are actively seeking tomato contracts to generate cash for dairies which continue to lose money because of low milk prices. These dairies have large acreages now for forage crops. Some of this ground is more than suitable for tomatoes. And many of these dairies are in areas on the East Side of the Valley where tomato processors are being forced to go in search of new tomato ground.

Former orchard growers and dairymen seeking tomato contracts only increase the competition for tomato contracts.

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