Tomato price appears to come back down to earth

Supply was short between early harvest here and Florida crop.

January 11, 2010 

The tomato shortage seems to be easing, if prices and stock at local grocery stores offer any clue.

A shortage was noticed by shoppers over the holidays, who also faced high prices. Some sandwich shops across the nation took tomatoes off the menu because they couldn't find any quality produce at a decent price

According to the president of the Tomato Farmers Commission, the problem was that California fresh tomatoes were done harvesting early this year, before Florida tomatoes came onto the market. Ed Beckman said there was a gap when there was a shortage of the ripe red fruit in the United States. About 60 percent of tomatoes sold in the U.S. go to restaurants.

A check at a couple of Merced stores Monday showed that for Roma tomatoes, the price was back in an affordable range. At Save Mart, they were on sale for 49 cents a pound, and at Raleys were 99 cents a pound.

Other tomatoes, both vine-ripened and on the vine, at Raleys were $2.99 for the vine-ripe tomatoes, and $3.49 for tomatoes still on the vine.

Merced County is a robust tomato-growing county, with 10,000 acres of fresh tomatoes grown in 2008. Combined with processing tomatoes, tomatoes ranked eighth in value in 2008, worth more than $114 million to local growers.

David Robinson, agricultural commissioner for the county, said tomatoes are historically an important crop in the county, with most of the acreage found on the Westside, near Dos Palos and Los Banos, and near Planada and Le Grand.

Robinson said it's too early to tell how many acres of tomatoes growers will plant this year.

"Most growers won't plant a crop unless they have a contract first," Robinson said. Growers who might think about jumping on a crop that's high-priced now may find the economics different in the summer, when local fresh tomatoes are harvested.

To-MAY-to or To-MAH-to, they're big business in Merced County.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.