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Big tomato, fruit crops put squeeze on U.S. farmers

tomato
Farmer Mark Cooley's tomatoes may never find buyers because of a glut  

July 20, 2000
Web posted at: 8:57 p.m. EDT (0057 GMT)


In this story:

Crops may be buried

New strategies in growing food

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



DIXON, California (CNN) -- Tomato farmer Mark Cooley and his family are ready to harvest 900 acres of tomatoes, but unless they can find new buyers for their crop, they could lose $1 million.

"I called six canneries and nobody wants them," said Cooley.

For years, the Cooleys and hundreds of other farmers had sold their tomatoes to Tri Valley Growers, one of the nation's largest farmers' cooperatives that cans produce. But the cannery declared bankruptcy this month.

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 Background:
According to Tri Valley Growers Web site:
  •  It is owned by 500 grower-members
  •  Responsible for more than half of canned peaches, 20 percent of canned olives and 10 percent of canned tomato products sold in United States.
  •  Employs 9,500 seasonal, 2,000 full-time employees in San Francisco Bay area and at nine processing plants in California and New Jersey
  •  Company brands include: S&W Fine Foods, Libby and Libby Lite Fruits, Oberti Olives, Tuttorosso Tomatoes, Sacramento Tomato Juice, Redpack Tomatoes and many private labels.

The financially troubled co-op blamed the overproduction of tomatoes and other fruits and said it can't find a market for all of them.

Crops may be buried

While many farmers desperately try to find a market for their crops, they're continuing to irrigate and put money in their fields. Eventually, they may be left with just one option.

"We come in with a big flat roller 30-feet wide, we roll them. We come in with a big disk and we disk them. That's it, done, gone!" said Cooley.

Half of the peaches canned in the United States are processed by Tri Valley Growers. The peach industry has tried to avoid over-production, but farmers like Dan and Jeff Stephens may have to bulldoze acres of their orchards to help cut the glut and keep prices up.

"If we do take trees out of the ground for next year, we don't know what to plant because there is not a commodity out there that is very profitable at this time," said Jeff Stephens.

Farmers say the coop's possible collapse comes at a time when worldwide competition makes it tough to find room in the domestic market.

"They're able to land them here on our West Coast cheaper than we can afford to put them into the can and can them," said Stephens.

New strategies in growing food

Consumers may not see changes at the checkout stand from the current upheaval, but pear-grower Dave Elliot said now is the time for farmers to change their strategies.

"We may try to grow less tonnage and larger pears," said Elliot.

If the bankrupt co-op shuts its doors for good, Matt Cooley said he and other tomato farmers will be ruined.

"We'll be done. We won't be farming anymore," said Matt Cooley.



RELATED STORIES:
Hard economic times bring depression, shame for struggling farmers
May 25, 2000
Summer drought brings dismal harvest
October 15, 1999
Bountiful crops mean hard times for farmers
November 23, 1998

RELATED SITES:
Tri Valley Growers
United States Department of Agriculture

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