California Moving Toward Strong Heirloom Production


For the next six weeks – through September -- California should be at peak production of its organic heirloom tomatoes and other varieties in the category.

“It is interesting that most people think we are in peak production in June, July and August,” said Robert Lichtenberg, director of purchasing for  Earl’s Organic Produce, San Francisco.  “But actually the California tomato crop is at its peak from mid-August through September.”

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He noted that organic tomato production along coastal California comes in to its own at this time of the year.  “Right now we are getting awesome tomatoes from Santa Barbara and other coastal areas.”

In fact Lichtenberg said the organic tomato category is chock full of options including heirlooms, romas, many cherry varieties, and many specialty tomatoes.  “We are going to be at our peak for the next four to six weeks.”

The produce sales veteran, who spent many years growing organic produce as a farm manager for the pioneering Star Route Farms in Bolinas, CA, said this time of year most of those California tomatoes will stay on the West Coast because of the many home-grown deals in the East and Southeast.  “They affect organic tomatoes in the same way they affect conventional production,” he said, adding that organic tomatoes are still selling at a premium, but the f.o.b. price does typically dip during the summer months.

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He estimated that East Coast buyers will come back to western production sometime in late September.

On the East Coast, Rick Feighery, vice president of sales for Procacci Bros. Sales Corp, Philadelphia, is expecting fairly strong supplies of organic vine ripes, romas and grape tomatoes throughout September.  He said rain throughout the Mid-East for a couple of weeks in August did hamper production, but dry weather is forecast for the next couple of weeks and good volume should accompany that good weather.  The company is currently pulling its vine ripes and grape tomatoes from New Jersey, while Ohio and Michigan are providing romas.  “North Carolina should start in about a week and North Florida about a week after that,” he said, noting that the several areas of production should combine for good supplies.

While the organic market is stronger than the conventional market, overall Feighery says it has been a tough year for conventional growers.  He said organic tomatoes have kept the spread over conventional market, but they have all dipped to lower than typical prices. 

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And this time of year, he said the small regional deals and backyard tomato plants do cut into sales.  “Just yesterday we were talking about the impact (of home-grown product).  It seems to be about three weeks later this year…probably because of the August rain.”

While he does expect that product to impact demand a bit for commercial tomatoes, Feighery also expects the transitioning from one production area to the next to act as a stabilizing influence and strengthen the organic market.  He quipped that what the commercial tomato growers really need is an early freeze that ends the backyard deals a bit early.

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