Crop Tour Day 13
Red Gold Tomatoes
Monitors: Rylie Henderson, Anthony Crawford, Emily Deklein, Kaitlin Woods
On the final stop of the trip we arrived at a tomato field. The field was in the middle of being harvested for Red Gold tomatoes. The tomatoes were being sent to a processing plant that was approximately 6 miles from the field. We were introduced to Curt Utterback director of agriculture for Red Gold. Curt has been with the company for several years, but only director for 2 years. On top of his director role he and his brother own the farm we were visiting. The two brothers have been farming their tomatoes since 2000 and have 350 acres. Currently the entire company grows around 10,000 acres of tomatoes between all the growers. Red Gold tomatoes has 35 growers on contract with them, the growers supply tomatoes to the 3 processing plants. The number of growers has gone down from 64 in the late 90s to 35 currently due to retirement. However, the yields and quality of tomatoes has gone up. Their capacity is still maxed out for the number of tomatoes they can process per year even with the reduction in growers as a result. Moreover, since tomatoes are a very risky crop to grow, Red Gold gives their growers crop insurance as incentive to grow for their company, which is a contributor to their 0% turnover rate.
Curt went over the processing of tomatoes where the processor runs August 15th until October 15th for their fresh tomatoes. The plant is mainly run by migrant workers and there are around 600 employees between the 3 factories. Red Gold doesn’t store their tomatoes, instead they are processed right away. The processing on average takes 6 hours from picking the tomato in field to the final packaged product, but can be as little as 1 hour depending on how far the field is from the plant. The company produces 60,000 tonnes a week during the 2 months of harvest. They are able to obtain a consistent supply of tomatoes by staggering their growers planting. Various planting dates also helps ensure that the majority of the tomatoes harvested will be processed without wastage. During some of the months where there are no fresh tomatoes being harvested from their growers, they ship in tomato paste from California and process this into sauces, juices, and ketchup. However, harvest is still their busiest season! During harvest, they will run their plant 24/7 to process their tomatoes and shut down every 4 days to wash down the entire plant, which is industry standard. For all 3 plants, there are about 350 trucks per day being sent out to plants that need more tomatoes to process.
Curt went over geographical locations for the plants in proximity to his field; 2 of the plants are 6 miles away and the other one is 60 miles away. Growers are located in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, all of which are by contract. The contract for growers is dealt through Red Gold where they are given a specific regimen and schedule on planting, spraying, and harvesting. Additionally the company will provide the grower with a budget of expenses needed to grow the tomatoes in order to break even, and anything beyond that is the farmer’s decision.
To start with planting, the Red Gold provides seedlings to the farmer, which are grown in greenhouses. Fertilizer is applied at 700lbs/acre pre-plant with emphasis on potassium to allow the tomatoes to obtain the bright, classic red they are known for. Further fertilizer application will occasionally be applied in-season at 100-150lbs/acre but isn’t always needed. The seedlings are 4.5-5 inch transplants and the greenhouse growers are also on contract with Red Gold. There are 7 greenhouse growers for Red Gold, but the largest greenhouse location is in Georgia. Every grower has a specific number of acres per week to plant, where the planting will extend to 6 weeks long. On top of having specific greenhouse growers, the varieties planted are only approved Red Gold varieties. There is currently 12 different varieties on the list. Since Red Gold owns the contract with the greenhouse, the farmer will buy the plants from Red Gold to grow for Red Gold. In terms of planting, it was emphasized by Curt that for tomatoes, they are typically put on a minimum 3-year rotation to mitigate disease, pests, and soil health problems. However, he recommended a 6+ year rotation or ideally as long as possible to ensure disease is less prominent in fields. Rotations that are typically recommended is corn, soybean, and then tomatoes for the 3-year tomatoes.
Next step is in-season applications. Curt went over pre-plant, where there is a single pass herbicide consisting of Dual, Sencor, and Rimsulfuron. 10-14 days post-plant, his growers apply a double pass herbicide program consisting of Dual, Sencor, Matrix, and Rimsulfuron. This spray program is intensive, as broadleaf weeds are the main challenge for termination within tomatoes. Some growers will go back and hand-pick any weeds that were missed, but not all. In the growing season, Red Gold has 3 field-ag coordinators who have different area radii. These field-ag coordinators check fields every 10 days and report any disease or pests they find.
Harvest season is followed where the same workers who plant, help for harvest. During harvest, the Utterbacks have 2 harvesters; a bit different from each other. On the tour, we were watching the harvester with 2 sorters, but they had a second harvester that had 3. Curt went over harvester information where a single harvester without sorters run for $430,000 and each individual sorter costs $70,000. He mentioned labourers for harvesters used to consist of 8-10 people but with the addition of mechanical sorters on the machine, manual sorters needed moved to roughly 3 people. When growers go into harvest, they apply ethapon to allow the tomatoes to mature at the same time. Harvesters will enter 10-14 days after application. We noticed a lot of trash left on the field after being ran through by the harvester, and Curt told us that typically 10% total green tomatoes left in-field was most efficient/normal. Any less percent can indicate that the tomatoes got too mature, resulting in a higher percent moldy tomato and any more would be wastage in the field as some would be left behind. Harvest typically goes from August 15th until October 15th, which is the same time the processing plant opens and is also on schedule by Red Gold for growers to harvest since they planted in a stagger as well. Within the process there are 5 total sorts occurring during the process, some of the sorts are pre-peel in the field and some are post-peel within the plant.
Following Harvest, tomatoes are sent to the processing plant where the peel is removed from the whole tomato. The plant turns fresh tomatoes into whole peeled, diced, and stewed tomatoes depending on the grade they are given. Grades are given to tomatoes determined following unloading of the truck and the grades also determine how much the grower will receive for their tomatoes in terms of quality and yield. Tomatoes under 1.31 inches will get paid out less and same with amount yellow when the tomato is cut open. Top-priced tomatoes are premium and are priced at $150/tonne, but this price ranges according to grade. The grades for fresh tomatoes consist of Fancy being the highest grade, then extra standard, and then standard, which all get paid out according to quality. The grade is selected based on color and size, all judged by workers. When tomatoes fall in a lesser grade, they are not used for whole-peeled, stewed, or diced. Instead, they are used for sauces, juices, and ketchup. Red Gold’s premium specialty is whole-peeled, where they have “the best whole-peeled tomatoes,” in the industry. All the tomatoes are processed differently based on their grade and what projections were made the year before. Projections are made by sales staff and predict which tomatoes will be more or less popular in the market. This is also a determinant for the schedules they make in terms of what variety they want to grow in align with what they want to process. When companies such as Kroger, Meijer, Walmart, etc. want to buy their tomatoes, the label is applied according to the brand of the buyer purchasing them. This means Red Gold labels will never make it to shelves, but instead the logo of the buyers. It is also important to add details about competitors in tomatoes where the Midwest is only a small fraction of processed tomatoes in America. The Midwest contributes ~500,000 tonnes whereas California produce ~12.5 million tonnes!
Following the tour in the field, Curt led the way to his 3-sorter planter, and he was thanked with our University of Guelph Honey. Curt was generous enough to give us all gifts of his own from Red Gold being bandanas, cups, and tomato soups and sauces. It was very educational and a great opportunity to learn about tomatoes on crop tour and we thank Red Gold and their whole team for taking time out of their busy harvest season to teach us more about their operation! Their tomatoes were also very tasty!