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Tomatoes Could Be the State’s Next Cash Crop

The Tomato Magazine
October 2007

By Rebecca Blanton
Register & Bee staff writer

It’s a humble staple in almost every home gardener’s plot. But who knew this simple salad garnish might someday replace tobacco as a cash crop. According to the experts, a farmer can make a lot of
green growing red. Tomatoes are a multi-million dollar business in Virginia, which ranks third nationally in tomato production with 223 million pounds grown last year. There’s a reason for the increase in production.

“Eliminating the middle man or broker and going direct to the chain stores, like Food City, is how producers are making money,” said Allen Straw, extension specialist for Virginia Tech. “That’s what
producers are doing now. That’s why producers are able to make that kind of money.”

Pursuing the retail dollars in local stores and markets also is helping boost the crop.

“Data out of Kentucky shows that based on retail prices it’s possible to get $10,000 an acre for tomatoes,” Straw said. Even with an average yield and average market, producers can still expect to meet or break the profi t margins of the average acre of tobacco, he said.

“Tobacco prices for the smaller producers, say an acre or two where you don’t have the labor costs of the bigger operations, can bring in between $2,000 and $3,500 per acre of tobacco,” Straw said.

Like tobacco, tomatoes also are laborintensive crops. Straw, however, points out that based on a range from $6 to $8 a box in Virginia to the $20 per box in places like Grainger County, Tenn., farmers can expect to recoup about the same amount of money or more per acre as they do tobacco--more than $3,000 to $5,000 an acre. Marketing, particularly niche marketing, also plays a huge role in the amount of money a producer can expect to get, he said.

The variety of tomato, consumer appeal and name recognition is important, too. It all factors in to the ultimate “per box” price.

Consumers want taste, Straw said. They don’t want bland tasting imports. Imported tomatoes can be so bad you throw away the tomato and eat the box because it has more flavor, he joked. Numbers
don’t lie. The demand is there.

Virginia trails only Florida and California in tomato production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of the state’s tomato crop is grown on the eastern shore, but Straw said he
sees potential in places like Pittsylvania County. In 2006, Virginia growers harvested more than 5,800 acres of tomatoes.

Cash receipts totaled more than $98.7 million, said Gary Lucier, agriculture economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The numbers are impressive, Lucier said, because in 2001 Virginia’s tomato harvest was on 3,900 acres with $31.7 million in cash receipts. In five years, the value of production grew by $67 million, he said.

Virginia, however, still has a long way to go to catch up with Florida and California. In 2006, Florida produced 1.35 billion pounds of tomatoes and California produced 1.15 billion pounds.

Editor’s Note: Contact Rebecca Blanton at rblanton@registerbee.com or (434) 791-7984.

© 2007 Columbia Publishing

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