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Prices for canned tomato products could rise as California farms remain soggy after record rains


California provides the majority of lettuce and spinach in the country. Fresh fruits, such as grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines, are also three weeks behind schedule, Jacobsen said, but no shortages are expected for them.

As the tomato planting season approached, stocks across the country were already running low due to years of drought, substandard crops and growers’ focus on other produce, Mike Montna said. , president of the California Tomato Growers Association.

A farm worker cleans a drain after a pair of powerful storms blew through the area causing massive flooding in Watsonville, California on March 14, 2023.
A farm worker clears a drain after a pair of powerful storms blew through the area causing massive flooding in Watsonville, California on March 14.Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

According to the association, the roughly 200 tomato growers in the state grow 95% of the tomatoes used in canning in the United States.

A total of 10.5 million tons of tomatoes were grown in California last year. The crop is harvested about four months after planting, and this year growers were expected to produce 12.4 million tonnes, but expectations have dropped since the storms hit.

some of the roughly 200 tomato growers in the state, who grow 95% of the tomatoes used in canning in the United States,

“I think most think our yields will be low this year, but it really depends on Mother Nature,” Montna said, estimating that up to 1 million tonnes of tomatoes could be lost. Others predicted it could be more.

“There’s definitely a potential for a shortage,” Montna said.

Bruce Rominger, president of the California Tomato Growers Association, said some tomato products may be harder to find this summer and at higher prices.

“That would be something where you wouldn’t see as many choices on your grocery store shelves,” he said. “There will be certain categories, maybe ketchup or salsa or tomato soup, that won’t be enough.”

A tomato crop as supply is reduced by drought
Bruce Rominger on a tomato harvester in his field in Winters, California in 2022.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images File

Jacobsen is more optimistic, saying that despite the late start, tomato products should be readily available.

“It’s a very limited season, but I don’t expect it to come to that,” he said. “People are doing what they can to catch up. Growers are moving fast to get more plants in the ground.

Fresno County tomato grower Bret Ferguson said this week he’s not ready to predict a nationwide shortage of tomato products.

“There’s not an overabundance of inventory, but I think processors and distributors will get around that,” he said. “We’ve always, as an industry, made things work. You won’t see empty shelves of products.

Farmers said growing later in the season can make crops vulnerable to additional rainfall and higher temperatures, causing plants to rot, mold or die.

Typically, farmers sell their tomatoes to processing plants, where they are packaged into items that are sold directly to grocery stores and other retailers.

Sometimes companies buy tomato paste from processors to make their own canned products for restaurants and stores.

Whatever happens, the threat of a poor growing season looms over farmers like the dark skies that have hovered over their fields for months.

“If you’re a bettor and you’re betting that we’ll have a good average or better harvest,” said Barcellos, the San Joaquin Valley farmer, “that’s a bad bet.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.