Years of drought squeezing tomato farmers

Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 9:32 AM MST|Updated: Oct. 17, 2022 at 9:34 AM MST
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(CNN) - California’s water crisis is causing problems for tomato farmers in the state, and now inflation is also hurting their bottom line.

“We pick at the peak of freshness,” said Aaron Barcellos of A-Bar Ag Enterprises. For 25 years, he has grown tomatoes in California’s Central Valley.

“It’s a great product. There’s a sense of home to it,” Barcellos said. “This year was a below average year for us.”

But between the crushing three-year drought and the rising cost of growing tomatoes, farmers like Barcellos are feeling the squeeze as their margins get sliced and diced.

“We’re just at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said. “We had a little over 500 acres. We fallowed over 2,000 acres of ground that normally go to tomatoes. We just did not have the water to go ahead and grow. ... During a drought, our water triples and quadruples in price as well.”

But it’s not just water. Because of inflation, farmers are also paying more for fuel and fertilizers, those added costs then reflected in consumer products.

“There aren’t any farmers making any money on tomatoes in California this year, even with a record price,” Barcellos said.

Take a summertime drive on Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, and it’s nearly impossible to miss the trucks of tomatoes being hauled straight from harvest to production.

“Ninety-five % of the processed tomato products consumed in the United States come right here from California’s Central Valley,” said Mike Montna, president and CEO of California Tomato Growers Association.

As California’s tomato growers are at the end of their harvesting season, there just hasn’t been enough tons of tomatoes to harvest this year versus last year, which means there’s less to go around, which means prices will go up - something that consumers will feel when they go to the grocery store.

These are tomatoes that become ingredients in sauces, soups and salsas.

The California Tomato Growers Association says its members produced about 14% fewer tomatoes this year than originally intended.

“What makes this different is this is about our fourth year in a row of having a shorter crop than what we wanted. Ultimately, it does come down to the water,” Montna said.

Barcello, who grew up in the Central Valley, said the climate “has definitely changed. We are seeing hotter streaks during the summer, more extremes between cool and warm, and I don’t know what an average year is anymore.”

Barcellos said tomato crop yields across the state have steadily declined over the last decade.

“A lot of that is due to the climate change.” he said.

As for his family’s operation, tomatoes may soon be out the mix.

“Right now, we don’t have any acres scheduled for tomatoes next year. ... Unless tomato prices in the field get to a level where we think we have a chance of making money, we’re going to go do something else with those open acres,” Barcellos said.