Explore the ins and outs of growing tomatoes commercially.

Tomatoes are one of the nation’s most popular vegetables–or is it one of the most popular fruits? Debate as to which side of the produce aisle tomatoes belong on aside, tomatoes are in high demand. Growing tomatoes commercially can be a lucrative operation, but the potential for great profits is accompanied by great risk. Take a look at the state of the commercial tomato industry.

The History of the Tomato

Tomatoes–which are technically a fruit but are treated as a vegetable in the kitchen–are originally from the Americas. They were brought back to Europe by the Spanish and quickly became a staple throughout the continent.

According to The Florida Tomato Committee, tomatoes were grown commercially in Florida as early as the 1870s. Today, tomatoes are grown all over the U.S. with commercial-scale production in about 20 states. There are two sides to the tomato industry: fresh market and processing.

Florida and California continually vie for the top spot for growing fresh market tomatoes. As stated by the Ag Marketing Resource Center, Florida and California together make up two-thirds of the U.S.’s total acreage for fresh-tomatoes. Florida, however, is responsible for growing virtually every fresh-market, field-grown tomato from October through June, according to The Florida Tomato Committee.

A Farm Flavor article lists the other three states joining Florida and California in the top five fresh-market tomato-producing states as Virginia, Georgia, and Ohio. Additional Southeastern states in the top ten include Tennessee and North Carolina.

Growing Tomatoes Commercially

Growing tomatoes commercially can provide “substantial income,” according to a North Carolina Extension publication, which offers average production in the Southeast for staked tomatoes can range from 15 to 20 tons per acre at lower elevations to 20 to 30 tons at higher elevations, even reaching 30 to 45 tons per acre for some growers.

The publication also details the high risk associated with growing staked tomatoes on a commercial level. Commercial tomato production is “labor intensive, requires a high initial investment, and demands high-level management,” as reported in the publication. Tomatoes are generally grown on stakes, and getting started requires additional field preparation and considerations like “tomato varieties, site selection, soil type, soil fertility (the present status and any needed adjustments), crop rotation, and the history of the field (including past incidence of disease),” according to the publication. Other considerations include tillage, cover crops, irrigation, fertilization, and pest control, just to name a few.

Tomato Industry Update

The latest information on the tomato industry comes from the USDA’s Vegetables and Pulses Outlook, published October 27th, 2017. August 2017 year-to-date (YTD) shipment volumes for three of the four fresh-market tomato varieties were higher than August 2016 YTD totals; only Roma field tomatoes were down compared with 2016 numbers. The forecasted 3rd quarter fresh-market grower (point-of-first-sale) price for field tomatoes for 2017–31.25 cents per pound–was up slightly over the 2016 3rd quarter price of 31 cents per pound. The 4th quarter 2017 projected price of 35.25 cents per pound was higher than 3rd quarter prices, but slightly lower than 2016’s 4th quarter price of 36.57 cents per pound.

The publication maintains that damage to Florida greenhouses from Hurricane Irma will affect the availability of tomatoes and seedlings coming out of the Sunshine State.

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