Commercial tomato producers in the Mid-South have begun their harvest season. The first partial load of tomatoes from Warren, Ark., arrived at the St. Louis terminal market June 5, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The tomato market situation looks favorable.

According to the USDA, tomato supplies currently are relatively short and tomato prices are relatively high. On June 8, the terminal markets in St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas reported prices for field tomatoes from $13 to $19.90 per 20- to 25-pound box. Prices vary depending on the size, maturity and quality of the tomatoes.

Last year during this same week, the same markets reported prices from $9 to $15 per box.

On June 7, Florida farmers received $13.20 for their 5x6 and 6x6 mature green tomatoes, while farmers in Mexico received $8.85 to $10.85 for their two-layer cartons of vine-ripe tomatoes ranging in size from 4x4s to 5x6s.

Farmers in the Mid-South should expect comparable prices for their good-quality tomatoes. According to the Arkansas Agricultural Statistics Service, Arkansas farmers have averaged $38.69 per hundredweight over the last 10 years, which equates to about $8 or $9 per box.

Favorable prices this year seem to be the result of short supplies. So far this season, tomato shipments have been about 82 percent of what they were last year at this time.

Tomato shipments the first week of June this year were only 59 percent of those shipped the first week of June in 2004.

The only two suppliers through June 4 were Florida and Mexico. Both suppliers shipped fewer tomatoes than normal in April and May. Florida farmers have been plagued recently with too much rain. Wet fields are causing some delays in harvesting.

So what can we expect for the remainder of June and into July? According to USDA’s Shipping Point Trends Report released June 7, movement from central and south Florida is expected to decrease as harvest winds down. Movement of very light supplies from west Florida was expected to start June 11.

Movement from Mexico crossing through California is expected to increase slightly through the middle of June.

Movement from southeast Arkansas is expected to increase sharply in June as the season is under way.

Light movement from South Carolina was anticipated to begin around June 14.

Some growers in southern California were anticipating harvest to begin by June 13.

The demand for tomatoes is pretty strong. However, if all of these production regions have bumper crops and harvest about the same time, supply could outrun demand and lead to lower prices.

Most of the information for this article was obtained from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. You can keep up with the tomato market throughout the season by visiting its Web site at www.ams.usda.gov. Select the Fruit and Vegetable program, then the Market News Price and Movement Data link and finally the Fruit and Vegetable Market News Reports link. From there you can navigate through various reports to find market information on tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables.

Fresh market tomatoes are a high value, highly perishable crop. They cannot be stored for long periods of time. As a result, tomato prices can change in a matter of weeks or even days. At the time of this writing, however, 2005 has the potential to be a favorable year for tomato prices.

Kelly Bryant, James Marshall, Rob Hogan and Scott Stiles are University of Arkansas Extension economists. Comments or questions? Call 870-460-1091 or e-mail bryantk@uamont.edu.