CHICO — It’s too early to know whether tomatoes will become a fixture among growers in Butte County, but if 2023 is any indication, there’s a solid chance they will.
Walnuts, for decades an important agricultural product in this area alongside almonds, have taken a beating in market prices in the past year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Objective Measurement report, the 2022 walnut crop was approximately 720,000 tons, down 1% from 2021’s production of 725,000 tons. There were 400,000 bearing acres — meaning the number of acres of trees which were actually producing walnuts — up 3% from 2021’s estimated bearing acreage of 390,000.
The tough figure: $1.80 per ton in 2022, down from $1.86 per ton in 2021 and way down from $2.08 per ton in 2020. For many farmers, the 2022 figure would not pencil out, given the increase in production factors they could not control, such as the higher price of gasoline and the drought, restricting water use.
Tomatoes — which have a much more attractive cost per ton and a lower cost to produce — have shown up in this area in greater numbers. Farmers appreciate the alternative to walnuts and the soil is favorable to growing the juicy round fruits.
“It’s a good alternative after having walnuts, especially with walnut prices being down,” explained grower Tim Sanchez of Chico, who is managing 100 acres of tomatoes in a partnership with a local farmer who did not wish to be identified.
“Tomato prices are good, and after taking out the (walnut) trees it’s like planting in virgin ground. It’s working out well, and farmers are getting cash revenue the first year they farm them.”
The Sacramento-based California Tomato Growers Association announced in January it had agreed to a price of $138 per ton with all processors for the 2023 season. It represented a 31.4% increase over 2022’s price.
Morning Star, a Woodland-based tomato processor with three facilities that process nearly a third of California’s tomato crop, also handles planting and harvesting operations. The company has been “pretty aggressive” in trying to get more acreage under contract in this part of the state, Sanchez said.
A big part of this effort has been the fact Northern California counties like Butte, Glenn and Colusa have outstanding soil as well as greater access to irrigation water. The lower Central Valley, which historically has been the top tomato-growing region, has faced drastic cuts in water delivery in recent years due to the drought.
Sanchez estimated the state production average for tomatoes at 42-45 tons per acre — equating to $5,796 to $6,210 per acre, based on the CTGA baseline price. There are “lots of variables” in determining that price, he said, not the least of which is the irrigation method — with drip irrigation being the preferred way.
“I think up north, we have — especially around the Chico area — a good climate for tomatoes,” Sanchez said. “There is an inherent risk with more rain events,” as rain can be detrimental to tomato crops.
However, “The soils are fertile, and the plants like the climate in this area,” he said. “In the south valley, the central valley, they’re having water issues, such as groundwater and surface water delivery issues,” thus making an area with more plentiful supplies more attractive for companies like Morning Star.
Farmers use less water for tomatoes than for nuts, Sanchez said, meaning greater water conservation. He said tomatoes use 2.2 acre-feet (716,872 gallons), compared to 3.5 to 4 acre-feet (1.14 million to 1.3 million gallons) for walnuts.
Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau in Richvale, said Tuesday she’s still watching the tomato-growing trend before she decides whether it’s permanent. In the meantime, she said tomatoes have shown impressive results around here.
“They obviously are filling spaces that have been more than likely vacated by walnuts,” Cecil said. “Farmers are filling a need for the tomato industry and it’s obviously a different use for their property.”
She cited such changes as new irrigation systems and different equipment than farmers are accustomed to using with nuts.
“This is a perfect example of how the marketplace is an important place in farming decisions,” Cecil explained.
“It’s a crop farmers are considering. They’re pulling out old orchards, and they’re having to think about what they’re going back with, and when.
“I’ve been told that if you’re going to plant tomatoes, it’s a three-year commitment,” she said. Cecil’s office does not have figures on how many growers are producing tomatoes now.
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