‘Giddy up-and-whoa’ spring grows question marks in tomato country


WARREN — Cool days, cold nights and smatterings of warm sunshine have raised a few question marks in the tomato fields of southern Arkansas.

“The tomatoes are looking pretty good for everything they’ve been through,” said John Gavin, Bradley County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Gavin is in Arkansas tomato country where about 1,000 acres of tomatoes grow in Bradley, Ashley and Drew counties.

The plants have been weathering what he called the “’giddy up-and-whoa syndrome,’ where everything is growing and expanding and then stops for a day” thanks to the nearly once-a-week dose of “extremely low temperatures in the 30s, approaching the frost point.”

Gavin said the real question is what will happen to the fruit set, in both quantity and size.

“Are we going to have eight to 10 tomatoes per cluster, or is that going to be reduced down to eight or maybe six?” he said. “And what will happen to the overall size of the harvested fruit? It could be the fruit won’t be as big and the percentage of extra-large tomatoes won’t be as high.”

The extra large tomatoes — those greater than 2.75 inches in diameter — are where the growers earn the highest prices.

In looking at some fields on Monday, Gavin said, “they looked good. Tomatoes were the size of quail eggs or quarters and I hadn’t seen any adverse effects.”

The cool spring has put the crop about a week or two behind normal, he said. Still, “Nature has a way of correcting things. If we could get some warm weather, we could play catch up.”

Gavin said growers are hoping to be able to pick before the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival, June 13-15, with the second annual Grand Tomato Ball being held June 7. (See: http://www.bradleypinktomato.com/)

“We’re hoping to be picking the first week of June,” he said.