CA tomato growers reel from extreme weather

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Get ready to pay more for tomatoes, as California growers reel from extreme weather

Tomato growers are feeling the squeeze: Low inventory, pandemic hoarding and now extreme drought

Washington Post 28July2021

CA tomato growers reel from extreme weather


Tomato sauce is feeling the squeeze and ketchup can’t catch up.

California grows more than 90 percent of Americans’ canned tomatoes and a third of the world’s. Ongoing drought in the state has hurt the planting and harvesting of many summer crops, but water-hungry “processing tomatoes” are caught up in a particularly treacherous swirl (a “tormado”?) of problems that experts say will spur prices to surge far more than they already have.

The drought threatens to imperil some of Americans’ favorite ingredients — pizza sauce, marinara, tomato paste, stewed tomatoes and ketchup all hang in the balance. And this comes not long after a bizarre, and completely unrelated, shortage of pizza sauce and individual ketchup packets during the height of the food-delivery-crazed pandemic.

This also comes on top of already steep increases in the price of fruits and vegetables, which have been rising since the coronavirus pandemic was declared last year.

For tomatoes, higher prices could start taking hold soon if not already, said Wells Fargo’s chief agricultural economist Michael Swanson.

“If you’re a producer or a canner and see these problems coming, why would you not raise prices now in anticipation?” he said, adding that consumers don’t see the price tag for a lot of the processed tomatoes consumed away from home. “It’s embedded in the menu board — but it is one more reason prices at Chipotle and Pizza Hut will go up.”

In a normal year, Aaron Barcellos, a farmer in Firebaugh, Calif., grows 2,200 acres of processing tomatoes. This year he’s decided to drop to 900 acres on his farm, which is on the border of Merced and Fresno counties. He’s left the remaining acres unplanted, choosing to focus all of his precious water on almonds, pistachios and olives grown on trellises — crops that command higher prices and represent already-significant sunken costs.

“We get eight inches of rain in a normal year. Last year we got 4½ inches,” he said. “We got zero percent of our water allocation, which forced us to buy a lot of expensive water, and it doesn’t make sense to put it on tomatoes.”

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