Arkansas tomato growers log one of best years

It was a good year to be a tomato farmer in southeast Arkansas, says John Gavin, Bradley County agent with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “It was probably one of the best years they've had in the last six or seven years,” Gavin said. “They had a steady, good price and good volume and fruit quality during the season.”

He said the price, depending on grade, ranged from $6 to $9 per 20-pound box. “We've had years where we averaged a higher price, but we didn't have the yield and quality. This year, farmers had it all, which made for a good year.”

Gavin attributed much of the success to nearly ideal weather during the growing season. He said “everything clicked. It was an easy-going year except for three nights in April when it got below freezing. Most farmers escaped with little damage.”

The average yield per acre was about 1,500 boxes with a total of about 1.2 million boxes produced in Bradley, Drew and Ashley counties. Most of the southeast Arkansas crop left the area in a steady stream of refrigerated semi-trucks bound for markets in the Midwest and Northeast.

Gavin estimated there are 45 to 50 commercial farmers raising a total of about 800 acres of tomatoes in the three counties.

He said each farmer employed an average of three workers per acre. “A lot of local youngsters earn extra summer money by packing boxes. The picking is usually done by migrant labor.”

About half of the crop was sold through the tomato market at Warren, Ark. The rest of the crop was marketed through other outlets in Bradley, Ashley and Drew counties.

Nearly half of the tomatoes produced were an Israeli variety raised by a group of farmers around Hermitage. Gavin said it's a firmer tomato that fits the packing needs of the farmers. “Most of the other varieties grown in the area are traditional varieties created by Randy Gardner of North Carolina State University,” said Gavin.

A number of farmers experimented this year with a new variety called Amelia. The variety is marketed as being resistant to two serious yield-robbing diseases: tomato spotted wilt, which is believed spread by tiny thrip insects, and Fusarium Race III, according to Gavin.

He said Amelia could take “a lot of guesswork out of tomato growing. You don't have to worry about thrips sneaking up on you. You just worry about Mother Nature and hail, frost and so forth.”

Spotted wilt is a problem every year, Gavin said, but it was especially serious in 1996, 1998 and 2000. “One year, it infected about 90 percent of the vines here, and it cost us about half of our yield.”

“The quality and yield of Amelia was comparable to our old standby, Mountain Spring. There'll probably be a lot more of planted next year,” Gavin noted.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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