Folks wanting to take a big juicy bite of a plump red South Jersey tomato will have to wait a little longer — and possibly pay a little more — for the experience.
Farmers in the region say their tomato crops will be harvested later and will be smaller than in past years, a problem caused by too much rain and too little sunshine during the past several weeks.
Much of the crop is still in blossom or green and hard, and workers are busy clearing weeds from soggy fields when they should already be picking New Jersey’s third-largest cash crop, farmers said.
“You have to get it under control,” J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of Ag-Mart Produce, said of the 800 acres on which his company grows tomatoes in the Cedarville section of Lawrence Township. “We’re battling back.”
Procacci said workers on his farm likely will not start picking tomatoes for about another week, and that depends on the arrival of some hot, dry, sunny days. The number of tomatoes eventually picked likely will not be as big as last year’s, he said.
“It’s not normal,” he said. “We lost a lot of bloom to rain and stuff like that.”
Bill Nardelli, who markets tomatoes for area farmers at Nardelli Lake View Farms in Cedarville, said the tomato season is still salvageable, especially given the favorable weather forecast for the next week.
“The vines are awash and heavy and big,” he said. “It’s a matter of keeping the plant healthy.”
That raises another concern: Two cases of late blight, a fungus that spoils tomatoes and potatoes and that is caused in part by too-moist conditions, have already been recorded in the state. One case of late blight, which usually strikes between August and October, was found in Salem County.
“Conditions have been ideal for late blight this year,” said Andy Wyenandt, a plant pathologist with Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension Service. “The fungus likes wet and humid weather.
“There is a concern now because it was found early in the growing season,” he said. “As long as the weather conditions stay the way they are, it will be a threat for the foreseeable future. It can wipe out a field in a couple of days. It really moves fast.”
Wyenandt said commercial growers face less of a threat from late blight because they use fungicides to control the disease.
“It’s the organic and home farmers that have the problem,” he said. “They lack the ability to control it.”
New Jersey farmers produced almost 57 million pounds of tomatoes on 2,700 acres last year, according to statistics from the state Department of Agriculture. The crop was worth almost $31 million in 2012, making it the state’s third-biggest cash crop behind blueberries and peaches.
Farmers said it was too early to predict how much smaller the state’s tomato crop will be this year, or how much more customers may have to pay for a pound of tomatoes.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said consumers paid about $1.50 for a pound of tomatoes this time last year. The per-pound price was about $1.45 in May, the latest month for which statistics were available.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that tomato prices are low nationally because of a glut on the market.
Federal agriculture officials reported last month that the price of a 25-pound carton of some tomato varieties from California was selling for as low as $4.95. That was as much as $7 less than the same time last year.
Despite the concerns by farmers about production and cost, state agriculture officials remained positive about this year’s tomato crop.
Carl Schulze, director of the department’s division of plant industry, said the quality “is still expected to be pretty good.”
“By and large, we are expecting good things from this season,” he said. “Growers are on their game. We’re expecting a good harvest.”
Schulze said tomatoes heading to farm markets and supermarkets are generally grown on stakes, and not left to grow on the ground. That makes them different from “processing tomatoes,” which are grown on the ground, he said.
Processing tomatoes are used in products such as sauces and soups.
Procacci said New Jersey’s processing tomato industry is very small, and that most of those tomatoes are grown in California.
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