WARREN — Bradley County’s Pink Tomato Festival kicks off this week, with the Grand Tomato Ball on June 7 leading into a week of festivities starting Thursday, June 13. But there’s one small problem: There may not be many tomatoes.
“We haven’t actually started harvesting yet. We’re running two to three weeks behind schedule,” said John Gavin, Bradley County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
The culprit? Three cold snaps back in April that sharply reduced plant growth.
The result is that the ground set — the bottom cluster of tomatoes that are harvested first — are smaller and fewer in number than in a normal year, Gavin said. However, he said the higher sets on the tomato plants have not been affected, which means that the later parts of the harvest may render more fruit.
Growers are concerned about the late start because the ground set is “the biggest money maker of the season,” Gavin said.
However, stronger prices for tomatoes later in the season could offset some of the early losses, he said.
“Our people still think we’re going to have good prices,” he said.
Arkansas’ tomato belt includes Bradley, Ashley and Drew counties in the southeastern corner of the state. With about 1,200 acres cultivated with tomatoes, the crop generates about $14.7 million annually, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
In a normal year, harvesting begins the first weekend of June — which is why Bradley County hosts its tomato festival during the second full weekend of the month — and ends in mid-July. The late start in 2013 is a sharp contrast with 2012, when ideal spring weather had tomato growers harvesting in late May.
“We try to get 50-60 boxes of tomatoes for the festival,” Gavin said, adding that in theory, the festival could get by with 20 boxes for three main activities: the all-tomato luncheon, the tomato eating contest, the tomato packing contest.
Fortunately, an abundance of tomatoes isn’t necessary for the ball. If they could be picked now, “they would use them for decoration and for the dishes — usually finger foods,” he said.
Last year, growers were seeing 10 to 12 tomatoes in the first cluster; this year, the yield looks to be only four to six tomatoes, Gavin said. There are also fewer extra large tomatoes — those greater than 2.75 inches in diameter — which earn growers the highest prices.
The impact the reduction will have on growers will depend on how prices fluctuate. Normally, prices start high, fall and then come back up again, Gavin said. However, he said the late start in Arkansas may leave growers competing with growers from Tennessee later in the season, which could keep prices down.
According to Thursday’s report from the U.S. Agriculture Department, the highest prices for a 25-pound carton of tomatoes were for Florida tomatoes in Boston, hovering around $24-$25.