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Tomato grower's final 100 acres harvested

The October 3, 2009, issue of Western Farm Press featured an article about a first time tomato grower who yielded an amazing 93-tons per acre, yet faced an uncertain finish to the season due primarily to fallout from California’s largest processing tomato crop in history. This is a follow-up to that article:

The last 100 acres of Brad and Ellen Johns’ 600-acre processing tomato crop were harvested.

It came four weeks after the first 500 were machine harvested, and Brad figures he lost 15 percent of the crop in the interim. He accepts that reduction — considering he was fearful the 100 acres might not be harvested at all, and he would be facing big economic losses.

The Johns and Morning Star Packing Co. were partners in the 600 acres grown just north of Hanford, Calif. in Kings County. It was the first time Johns had ever grown processing tomatoes. One of his fields averaged an amazing 93 tons per acre, double the state average.

However, the harvesters pulled out of his fields in early September to go to other areas to pick other growers’ ripe fields as part of what could turn out to be a bin-busting 13.5 million ton California processing tomato crop.

Packers contracted for 13.3 million tons based on strong tomato paste sales. Fortunately or unfortunately, a perfect growing season devoid of major problems resulted in fields averaging 70 or 80 tons or more. Packers ran a week to 10 days behind during the height of the season keeping up with the contract delivery dates.

Tomatoes are planted on specific dates with a targeted harvest/delivery date.

Morning Star promised the Johns it would come back after it took care of growers who apparently had not had any tomatoes harvested.

“They came back and that settled the issue,” Johns said. “And no loads were rejected because of mold, despite the fact the tomatoes had been in the fields four weeks longer than they should.”

Johns continued drip irrigating the unharvested tomatoes for a month and applied a fungicide to prevent mold. Fortunately, there was no rain of high humidity to significantly damage the crop.

“We still averaged about 60 tons on the 100 acres,” Johns said. The state average is expected to about 40 tons this year.

Johns was among many first time processing tomato growers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley this season. Packers came looking for them with the loss of water and processing tomato acreage on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. Johns has high quality, shallow well water.

His fields had never grown tomatoes, and he was miles from the nearest tomato fields. Therefore, insect pests were never an issue.

“It was a perfect weather year; the perfect storm that produced 93 tons of tomatoes,” Johns said.

“It was a blessing and a curse. I will take it as a blessing,” he says.

Morning Glory, which went into joint ventures on about 5,000 acres of tomatoes with many growers are “fair, honest people,” according to Johns. ”I think they just ran into a huge crop like all canneries did. Morning Star made whole on my tomatoes, and that is all I asked.”

He has signed a five-year agreement with Morning Star and will honor that. It is a tonnage contract for 60 tons per acre next season. This season he was paid on an acreage contract.

“I will probably not make the tonnage I did in 2009, but I expect to make 65 to 70 tons. With a 60-ton contract, I am concerned about those five to ten tons more I will likely make.”

Unlike many large, West Side growers, Johns and smaller acreage growers like him cannot afford to leave fields unharvested when field go over the contracted tonnage.

He is somewhat relieved going into next year because his infrastructure cost of putting in a drip irrigation system came out of the 2009 income. “I had $2,300 per acre in this crop this year.” Roughly $1,000 of that was the cost of the drip irrigation system.

He has signed an early delivery contract. “If the weather cooperates, we should start harvesting by July 4 next year. That should help with cost, if we avoid the frost.”

Like most growers, Johns is bracing for lower prices in 2010. He has been told it will be in the $60 to $70 per ton range. This year it was $80 per ton.

Although 2009 was something of a bittersweet, first-time experience growing processing tomatoes for the second generation Kings County farmer, he will grow tomatoes once again.

“One reason is that I am set up for drip irrigated tomatoes and nothing else. Another is that tomatoes are the only thing that looks halfway good for 2010. Corn and cotton are in the tank.”

As well as Johns did in 2009, he was still a novice. He admitted to learning plenty this season.

“Processing tomatoes are a different business than I am used to,” said Johns.


TAGS: Vegetables
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