Arkansas harvesting good tomato crop, prices good

Harvest has arrived in south Arkansas’ tomato-growing counties and, so far, it’s shaping up to be a good one. The harvest window for the area usually opens the first week of June and closes in mid-July.

“Overall, we’ve had good growing conditions,” says John Gavin, Bradley County Extension staff chair. “We did have a very close call with frost in early April and a bunch of thunderstorms and scattered hail — but it seemed to have missed all our tomato fields.”

Last year, the Easter freeze “hurt us badly with, probably, a 40 percent loss on that planting. The northern half of Bradley County was severely frozen. The southern half didn’t have any freezing of plants, although the first cluster was hurt through reduced yield and size.”

In the northern half of the county, there weren’t enough plants to replant. That meant many growers had to grow them back through suckers. That delayed the maturity of the crop by another two weeks and affected the yield and performance for the year. Although those late plants made a crop, “they missed the high market at the early part of the year. Last year was rough.”

Longtime crop

Few row crops are grown in Bradley County. Tomato acreage is hemmed in by big timber operations.

“We’ve been raising great tomatoes in a commercial capacity since the 1920s,” says Gavin. “The peak years were in the 1960s and 1970s. Our folks just know how to grow tomatoes.

“All our tomatoes are fresh market, not canning. The tomatoes are large slicers. They go to groceries, restaurants. Actually, we’ve recently had small acreage — 50 or 60 acres — of Roma tomatoes grown. Those are also directed to fresh markets.”

Until the mid-1980s, a pink variety was preferred and helped distinguish the area. By 1990, however, growers had switched nearly all acreage to red tomatoes.

Now, the main varieties grown, including Amelia, have been around for around five years. Growers went to the newer varieties primarily due to their resistance to the spotted wilt virus, a disease transmitted by thrips.

In 1996, growers began experiencing severe yield loss. “Actually, it was more a market loss. The tomatoes still yielded okay, but when ripening with the virus, they turned out blotchy and spotted. The buyers didn’t want ugly tomatoes.”

South Arkansas had hit-and-miss cases of spotted wilt, some “really bad,” until 2001-02. There were no resistant varieties available so, some years, “we’d get by with about 15 percent affected fruit. Some years, though, we had 80 percent affected fruit. That meant our tomato acreage decreased — from 1,400 acres to around 600 acres.”

Farmers couldn’t take the risk of growing the crop off because, as the virus shows up only after the tomato ripens, they never knew if the virus would be a problem until harvest. By that time, “a huge cost and hours of time had been invested. After paying for inputs, irrigating, planting, stick-tying, pruning, spraying and all the rest, you can’t stand to have the crop not turn out.”

Then, in 2002, Amelia, a wilt-resistant variety, became available. In following years, other resistant varieties were released and have been mainstays since.

Tomato farmers are facing many of the same problems as the state’s row-crop producers. Input costs are substantially up with fertilizer prices doubled and the price of plastic drip and mulch increasing because they’re petroleum based.

Labor is also a continuing problem. “We used to could count on local labor,” says Gavin. “Now, many operations employ migrant workers through the H-2A government system. That means following stringent requirements for what those workers are paid and provided, such as housing.”

Has the recent tomato-vectored Salmonella scare affected the Arkansas tomato market?

“Our market has only begun. We had a few tomatoes harvested the first week of June. They only began coming out of the field in volume last week.

“But in the first week, growers usually count on $10 or $15 for a box of tomatoes. This year, it was $15 to $20.”

The tomato-growing areas affected by Salmonella were hit quite early in April and May. Since then, “other harvests have begun — central Florida, for example, along with California Baha tomatoes. There are no shipping restrictions on those because those tomato plants hadn’t been producing at the time of the outbreak. So the supply is increasing and once the pipeline is better filled, we’ll see prices level off.”

Regional pride

South Arkansas produces especially tasty tomatoes, insists Gavin. “I don’t know if it’s the soils, the environment or a combination of things — but we do believe our tomatoes are better-tasting. Historically, we’ve always raised them and they’ve always been a vital part of the local economy — and I’m talking about the tomato-growing (counties) of Bradley, Ashley, Drew, and to a lesser extent, Cleveland.”

The economic impact of the tomato crop varies yearly based on yield and prices, but Gavin believes annual gate-receipts to farmers are in the $6 million to $8 million range.

“Of course, that flow of money will then turn over a time, or two, in town. That makes a big difference in our little pocket of the world.”

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