It’s an exciting time for the tomato, and we've taken notice. With the local food movement dominating news outlets and a fresh focus on nutritious eating sweeping the nation, we wanted to know how one of America’s most popular fruits (or is it a veggie?) was doing throughout the entire supply chain. We polled growers to see which varieties of tomatoes they were growing and how they were growing them.
Then we investigated some of the major trends that are affecting the tomato market, from production to consumption. Dr. Roberta Cook of the University of California, Davis reported that, for the first time since the mid-2000s, the North American tomato industry is undergoing some significant changes. Craig LeHoullier, author of the newly released book “Epic Tomatoes,” talked about enticing new gardeners into the field and some of his favorite varieties of heirlooms and hybrids. Finally, we explored how one Canadian grower is excelling at reaching end users, the development of a grafted tomato-potato plant and a bevy of new tomato varieties now available to growers.
Without further ado, we present to you Produce Grower's inaugural State of the Tomato Report. We hope you find it useful for your growing operation, whether you're already growing tomatoes or are planning to jump into the market soon.
Hydroponics is growing, with 21 percent of growers saying they used the method to produce finished tomatoes. As urban and indoor farming becomes more popular, look for hydroponics to continue to gain. But soil-based growing remains the most-popular method of producing finished tomatoes, for now.
How we did it
The survey sample of 4,033 included all emailable Produce Grower print recipients at unique company locations, representing 40 percent of Produce Grower’s entire print circulation of approximately 10,000 at the time of sample selection.
Data was collected via online survey from December 15 to 29, 2014. The survey was closed for tabulation with 430 total responses— a 12% response rate based on the net effective mailout of 3,642.
We spoke to Dr. Roberta Cook of University of California, Davis to find out how North American tomatoes are exported, imported and what trends have shown over the past 25 years.
By Cassie Neiden
It’s no secret that fresh tomato consumption overall has been stagnant since the mid-2000s. However, interesting things are happening in the industry, both hothouse and field-grown, across all North American markets. Growers in the United States, Canada and Mexico are playing up their strengths to produce a variety of tomatoes to meet consumer demand for flavor, convenience, interesting colors, sizes and shapes.
One important fact to note is that U.S. per capita consumption of tomatoes increased 5 pounds from 1985 to 2013, according to data from the USDA, in large part driven by the increasing availability of hothouse tomatoes.
“That’s significant growth for a produce item that people consume a lot of,” says Dr. Roberta Cook, specialist and lecturer for UC Davis’ department of agricultural and resource economics. “While the hothouse tomato industry grew significantly for some time, more recently producers have reported facing market saturation. Hothouse round tomatoes and TOV [tomatoes on the vine] have matured, and all the growth is coming in the snacking category.”
Retail scanner data shows a decline in the total quantity (lbs) of tomatoes sold between 2009 and 2013. However, there has been major change in the product mix of tomatoes. One type cannibalizing the sales of another has been the main story rather than the new varieties stimulating higher consumption of tomatoes overall.
Tomato growers may also have opportunities as the foodservice industry has been pressured to add more non-animal proteins to their menus. Traditionally, the foodservice industry has purchased what are called "mature green tomatoes," which are grown in the open field, primarily in California and Florida. These are round tomatoes which are prized for their firmness and easy slicing attributes. Facing saturated retail markets, hothouse growers are attempting to gain inroads in some full-service and fast casual segments where slicing characteristics for some menu items may not be as important.
Meanwhile, there have been changes in the Canadian greenhouse industry, located primarily in Ontario, with a smaller production area in British Columbia. Ontario is the only region of Canada to expand tomato acreage in recent years, and the new greenhouses they are building are higher technology and produce more pounds of tomatoes per acre. Cook says Ontario continues to change the mix of tomatoes it produces. While in 2014 its total tomato acreage is expected to be up only 13 acres, there has been a major shift in what is grown. Ontario has upped its greenhouse acreage of specialty clusters by 69 acres (replacing acreage of other types like TOVs and rounds) in order to target premium consumers and to improve its competitiveness with the United States and Mexico. Innovative packaging and consumer messaging are all part of their strategy for stimulating consumer demand.
“Ontario and British Columbia have the disadvantage that their season is primarily spring through fall,” Cook says. “They can’t really produce in the winter because it’s too expensive to use lights, so that means their season is operating without the winter window where average prices are always higher.” Several growers from these provinces have built greenhouses in the USA as a diversification strategy.
In recent years, Mexican production of hothouse-type tomatoes (grown in “shade houses” or greenhouses) has grown substantially. These have displaced much of the production of tomatoes in the open field as growers have opted for more technology-intensive production and responded to consumer demand for hothouse tomatoes. Also, a new-high tech greenhouse industry has emerged in central Mexico. “Total exports from Mexico have been relatively stable since 2010 but there has been a major shift in the type of tomatoes exported,” Cook says. Again, in the tomato category, cannibalization seems to rule.
However, Cook says that there may be good news on the horizon. Scanner data in 2014 shows some growth in the total tomato category and as the economy improves consumer demand should improve. Growers in all three North American markets must think about scaling their operations to meet the need for year-round supply of the increasingly fewer but larger retail and foodservice buyers.
Craig LeHoullier wants his new book to entice non-gardeners into growing tomatoes.
Craig LeHoullier has dedicated his life to tomatoes. Over 30 years, LeHoullier trialed more than 2,000 varieties of tomatoes and in late 2014, “Epic Tomatoes,” a book detailing his wealth of growing tips and variety information, was released by Storey Publishing.
Produce Grower: What inspired you to write the book?
Craig LeHoullier: I started gardening when I first got married back in 1980. But my first gardening experience takes me all the way back to the first time my grandfather walked me around his backyard garden when I was 3 or 4. It took. It instilled a love of growing things in me. Then my Dad and I gardened together.
That love for gardening laid dormant until my wife and I got married. My wife and I like food, and I like to cook. I was a chemist at the time, at a pharmaceutical company and we did typical gardening. We bought seed packs from nurseries and garden centers.
But I get bored with the “typical.” I have a love of genealogy and history and stories. So when I discovered the Seeds Savers Exchange and joined it in 1986, it opened up a whole world of heirlooms to me.
Around the mid-1990s my wife started bugging me to write a book. I was working at the time. We had a young family. I said I would write the book when the time was right.
For a long time, I was a guest on a Nova Scotian radio program and the host was asked to write a book by Storey Publishing. And Storey was also looking for someone to write a book on tomatoes. So it all came together in 2012 when I got a call from my future editor asking if I was interested in writing about tomatoes. And I thought, “Now is the time.”
PG: But why were you so interested in tomatoes?
CL: Because I seem to have been one of those people that’s been chosen to spread the word on tomatoes. It’s sort of mystical and magical, but it’s always interested me. And I think the diversity of the colors, shapes and sizes, the number of heirlooms that seems to have survived to this day and the ease of saving seeds, all make the tomatoes the perfect thing to focus on.
PG: In the book, you have a list of your top varieties. You write that you started growing mostly hybrids and then switched to heirlooms. What prompted the switch?
CL: There was an intriguing thing that I would read in the seed catalogues in the mid-1980s that said, “You really need to focus on growing hybrids because the heirlooms will be very disease susceptible.”
They were convincing gardeners that they had to garden using only hybrids. Being a scientist, I said, “Okay, this calls for an experiment.”
For three years, I accumulated a lot of really interesting heirlooms. And I grew the most-talked about hybrids and I essentially had a competition. I drove my wife and family crazy. I was telling them, “Don’t pick those tomatoes. I need to weigh them and count them.”
So I was weighing and counting and then holding taste tests. I published the outcome in a little newsletter. Then I extracted the study and put it at the back of “Epic Tomatoes” as an index, so if people want to see what varieties I grew to compare, it’s there.
After three years, there were heirlooms that did just fine. In many cases, they equaled or exceeded the hybrids.This indicates to me that gardeners are extremely lucky to be gardening right now. They have great hybrids and great heirlooms to grow with and the choice has never been wider. People can really stock their gardens up with all kinds of interesting things and make gardening part of a therapeutic summer.
PG: One of the things you hope to accomplish with this book is attracting a new generation of gardeners. Why do you think that’s so important?
CL: A few decades ago, people would garden for food supply and they would can their produce and store it and live off it. Then we went through the convenience stage — after the 40s and 50s — when supermarkets would bring in fruits and vegetables from everywhere and the amount of gardening decreased. And now we’re seeing a renaissance of sorts.
But I’m also thinking that we’re competing with social media. A lot of young people can’t get off their phones, or the laptops or their video game consoles, so they’re not interested in gardening. It’s a challenge to continually convince people to take a step back, get away from the electronics, get their hands dirty — do something real.
Organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange are very aware of this and they consider outreach and developing future gardeners very important. And we’re hoping to reverse a trend. Over the last five years or so, there seems to be less-active seed savers participating in seed exchanges. But the variety numbers are increasing. So you’re getting less savers, with larger collections of varieties. It’s fascinating, but that trend puts the seed savers at risk because all of us who do this are going to get old, and we’re going to want to pass this along. We need young people to come in behind us.
To follow Craig on his adventures, visit his websites or write him an email:
- NCTomatoman.com (LeHoullier's garden diary: what he grows, how he grows)
- LeHoullier has a separate website detailing his adventures promoting his book: Epictomatoes.com
Craig LeHoullier has grown more than 2,000 varieties of tomatoes in his garden. One of those varieties, which he also named, is the Cherokee Purple (picture above).
Canada’s Windset Farms receives international recognition for its reach to its clients and end users.
By Cassie Neiden
In February 2014, HortiBiz International recognized Windset Farms as its inaugural Top Tomato Grower of the Year. Windset was chosen out of 200 worldwide growers for its unique marketing approach to reach not only its business customers, but also the end users who ultimately receive its produce.
“One of the main things over time that has happened from when I started the marketing program (and marketing our own product directly to our customers to the retail trade and food service) is branding it properly with a theme, which is an art/music theme that I’ve been very consistent with,” says COO of Windset Farms John Newell.
The website, for instance, includes “Windset TV,” which is a compilation of video tutorials of its chefs’ favorite recipes using Windset’s products, including Ricotta Gnocchi with Tomato Brown Butter and Braised Lamb Shanks with OvenDried Allegro Tomato, Feta & Mint.
Newell knows his audience, and a widespread geological reach is a huge advantage. While Windset’s outreach stretches from Canada south through Seattle, San Francisco and LA (what Newell calls a “Starbucks-drinking crowd”), it also reaches Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Nevada and Mexico.
“From a marketing/sales perspective it would be that we have a lot of different cool, niche items — not just the main stage. We don’t just do peppers and cucumbers and tomatoes. We do several different types of cucumbers. We do mini-pointed baby bell, full-size bell peppers of all different colors. We spread our risk from a marketing and sales perspective… but we’re then able to offer people really neat, innovative things,” Newell says.
HortiBiz International’s 2015 Tomato Inspiration Award ceremony will be held on Feb. 5 in Berlin. This year’s theme is “Crop & Process technology.”
A grafted tomato-potato plant has finally made it to the North American market after 100 years of experimentation.
By Cassie Neiden
SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables tried for 10 years to come up with a grafted plant that yielded both tomatoes and potatoes. After testing 200 different variety combinations, the company licensed technology from Beekenkamp in Holland, who had already brought their grafted tomato-potato plant,“TomTato,” to market, and finally achieved their goal.
Dubbed “Ketchup ‘n Fries,” this grafted plant has greenhouse-grown cherry tomatoes on top as the scion and commercially grown white potatoes on the bottom as the root system.
A look back
In 1914, Luther Burbank, an American plant breeder wanted to try soft tissue grafting, so he experimented by using a potato on top and a tomato for the root system. It worked, but the plant didn’t grow its tomato counterpart, so he switched it up: tomatoes on top, potatoes on the bottom.
“You can graft a tomato onto a tomato root without any problem. But to do a tomato onto a potato is tricky, and that’s what’s taken us 10 years,”says John Bagnasco, managing partner at SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables.
‘Ketchup ‘n Fries’ is grown in a greenhouse using the same cultural practices and timing as a typical tomato and looks similar to those in consumers’ gardens. “They’re going to look just like tomatoes [above ground],” Begnasco says. “It’s not until late in the season when you dig up the plant that you would notice potatoes.”
It is grafted and then shipped as liners to growers, who can then transplant the liners into gallon containers, which is the size sold at retail. Fifty to 70,000 plants will be available this year, and next year’s production is projected to be upwards of a million, Bagnasco says. The multi-purpose plant has caught the eye of growers and consumers, who can expect about 500 tomatoes and 4.5 to 5 pounds of potatoes per plant, according to Bagnasco. Consumers can grow ‘Ketchup ‘n Fries’ wherever they would normally grow tomatoes, as the soil is also suitable for potatoes. Begnasco says the Epcot Theme Park at Walt Disney World Resort will be showcasing the plant in translucent planters, so when people walk by, they can see the entire plant.
Spreading the word
This multipurpose plant and its catchy name have already generated considerable buzz in national media outlets. ‘Ketchup ‘n Fries’ made an appearance on Good Morning America and The Colbert Report, and was featured in The Washington Post, USA Today and NY Daily News.
Demand for the plant has been driven by consumers, especially new gardeners who have seen it in the news and are looking for a unique addition to their veggie garden.
“They like things that are different; they like all the bells and whistles,” Begnasco says. “They don’t want to just grow an average tomato; they want to have potatoes on the bottom of it.”
Now that SuperNaturals has a combination that works, the next step is experimenting with bigger tomato varieties, such as Beefsteak, and trying to find a tomato counterpart that will work well with Yukon Gold potatoes.