The tomato harvest is in full swing in the Central Valley, and locally in San Benito County, and it promises to be bountiful, in more ways than one.
The California Farm Bureau reported this month that California tomato producers expect to have contracts for 11.9 million tons of the red fruit (yes, tomatoes are technically a fruit), up from 10.4 million last year. In 2016, processors—including San Benito Foods, a Neil Jones Food Company, in Hollister—skinned, chopped, processed and canned 12.5 million tons of tomatoes.
One tomato farmer, Mitchell Yerxa of Williams, Calif., told the Farm Bureau’s Ag Alert that “early cool weather was great weather for setting that fruit.”
The harvest is expected to wrap up this week across the state. Producers were predicting yields of more than 52 tons of tomatoes per acre, up from 50 tons per acre a year ago.
That means that machinery and employment is set to pick up, hitting an annual peak of several hundred workers, at the tomato processing plants along Sally Street in Hollister.
Six canneries last week agreet to pay a higher price, $75.50 per ton, for this year’s tomato crop, and negotiations were continued this week with another five processors, according to the Farm Bureau report.
San Benito County ranks just 13th among California counties —led by Fresno County— that generate more than $1.3 billion in tomato production. California canneries produce about 90 percent of all tomato products in the country. In Hollister, San Benito Foods is one of the small city’s biggest employers during its peak summer processing season.
The higher costs for processors, while good news for farmers, could mean higher prices for canned tomato products in grocery stores next year.
Just three years ago, tomatoes were yielding $80 per ton, but demand has eased, putting a strain on farmers and processors alike.
Producers and processors also share anxieties about the future, with continuing labor shortages of drivers and farm workers, and an uncertain impact of widening tariffs and an international agricultural trade war, according to the Farm Bureau.
In Hollister, the San Benito Foods facilities produce foods under the labels, San Benito, Old California, San Benito Organic, Earthpure, Central Valley and Oregon Trail.
The products include crushed and ground tomatoes, chopped tomatoes, peeled tomatoes, dice tomatoes, tomato puree, sauces and salsa, catsup and pizza sauce.