JOHN GAVIN figures farmers in a three-county area of south Arkansas probably produced twice as many marketable boxes of tomatoes this year on half the acreage they did last year.

The reason?

“They didn't have to throw away so many tomatoes because of the spotted wilt virus. The disease just wasn't there this year,” said Gavin, Bradley County, Ark., Extension agent.

“This year, we only had about 700 acres compared to 1,400 last year in Ashley, Bradley and Drew counties.” But, he noted, farmers produced about 1,300 to 1,500 20-pound boxes per acre compared to 500 to 700 boxes last year.

Craig Andersen, Extension horticulturist in Fayetteville, Ark., said this was not only a bountiful crop but a high-quality crop. “This year's crop was one of the best for quality that we've had for five years or more. Arkansas tomato growers produced a crop that was as good as any in the country.”

South Arkansas tomato farmers had figured with the lower acreage this year, they would see higher prices than last year. That wasn't the case, Gavin said. Prices this year averaged $6 to $7 a box, compared to about $7 to $7.50 last year.

“Overall, it was a good year, but it didn't quite meet price expectations,” he said. “But good yields helped offset the lower prices. Farmers generally feel pretty good about the crop.”

Andersen said the reason for lower prices this year probably is that farmers were victims of their own success.

“A good crop and a good supply do not translate into high prices,” he said. “Adversity and short supply translates into high prices. In the American produce industry, farmers always grow at 115 percent of demand and hope for a disaster somewhere else.”

The horticulturist said Arkansas farmers make most of their money in the first two weeks of production. By the third week “they're probably making a little money and by the fourth and fifth weeks, they're probably breaking even or losing money.”

He said farmers may not have gotten as much money for their tomatoes as they had hoped, but they'll be rewarded with a marketing benefit in the future because buyers and the public know Arkansas can produce a quality crop of tomatoes.