As people were forced to cook at home, many reached for the tomato sauce.
Demand for processed tomato products jumped globally in 2020, lowering product inventories and peaking interest from both growers and processors.
Whether higher demands will outlast the pandemic remains uncertain. But in the meantime, Ontario’s processing tomato sector is gearing up for a busy 2021 season.
Why it matters: Increased demand from tomato processors means more acres in Ontario of the high-value crop.
In the Niagara region, Steve Lamour of Conagra Brands Canada Inc. says 2020 brought a “rocky start” to the season with a two-week planting delay.
The season itself was an average one. Yields were typical, though no major disease issues were observed. However, heavy rainfall in some areas of Chatham-Kent had localized yield impacts. Frost did as well, particularly for later-planted tomatoes which struggled to ripen after Sept. 19. The harvest run as a whole lasted 55 days from its start in August.
Average yields clocked in at 41.9 tons per acre – a number Lamour suggests would have been higher without frost-related losses.
“We did not fully attain our peel-pack but we got close enough to carry us through into this season. It just didn’t give us our carryover inventory into this fall which is what we normally look for,” he says.
Lamour adds the additional expenditures required for worker safety – specifically new housing and personal protective equipment – were enormous.
Processed tonnage exceeds contracts
The area in and around Essex County experienced a largely problem-free growing season, albeit with a few exceptions. Speaking on behalf of Highbury Canco, Tim Suitor says they experienced the biggest yielding crop yet processed at the Leamington facility, since it was taken over from Heinz.
Planting began mid to late May, and featured good overall establishment. The summer progressed without issues, though like Lamour, Suitor says heavy rains “really took the edge off” some fields. Later planted tomatoes thus struggled by comparison.
Differences between irrigated and non-irrigated fields were also observed, in that the latter appeared to outpace the former.
“I only had one big field in [Chatham-Kent] that was irrigated, and it looked like it was going to do 55, 58 tons to the acre, and it ended up doing 42,” he says.
“I would never want to discourage our growers from using irrigation because that’s the difference between beautiful tomatoes and not beautiful tomatoes at times. But it was a very interesting situation this year where disappointing things came out of fields that had the highest inputs, and wonderful things came out of the fields that had the lowest inputs.”
In the end, yields reached an average of 47.5 tons per acre, and 165,000 tons were processed by the company – 10,000 tons over what was originally contracted.
Despite this, and despite a general policy of significant product carryover from year to year, Suitor says their existing stocks are now low due to increased demand. As a consequence, production in 2021 is being raised to 200,000 tons.
An additional 900 to 1000 acres of tomatoes will be required to accommodate the difference. Contracts have already been signed, and greenhouses supplying transplants are already aware growers will require another 10 million units.
“The future is so bright we all need shades,” says Suitor.
The global perspective
Lamour and Suitor were two of several individuals speaking during the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers’ virtual Tomato Day in late January. Pre-recorded sessions from two United States processors and the World Processing Tomato Council were also presented, all affirming a sharp increase in consumer demand.
In the case of Indiana-based Red Gold Inc., that meant risking an earlier start to planting for a longer growing season – but like Ontario’s processors, inventory shortages were still reported.
Questions of whether demand will soften as COVID-19 diminishes were also expressed, though conclusions cannot currently be drawn.