SACRAMENTO – Sacramento Valley tomato growers parked three big rigs at a downtown park Friday and offered 75 tons of free tomatoes to the public and charities to protest the cent-per-pound price their crop is bringing in.
“This represents the 14,000 acres that may be plowed under if we can’t find buyers,” said Jeff Merwin, a fourth-generation farmer from Clarksburg.
The recent bankruptcy of the San Ramon-based Tri Valley Growers cooperative has left tomato farmers with a glut.
California’s second-largest fruit and vegetable processor filed for federal bankruptcy protection in July after losing nearly $200 million in the past three years.
Now tomato farmers say they’re getting about a cent for each pound of tomatoes and face $95 million in losses themselves this year. Before Tri Valley’s bankruptcy, they expected 2 1/2 cents per pound.
The farmers are asking Congress to help offset their losses by providing $31 million from a farm disaster relief program.
The farmers decided to give the tomatoes away to illustrate what they’re worth, Merwin said.
California grows more than 90 percent of tomatoes used in tomato-based products in the United States and nearly half the tomatoes processed worldwide. Sacramento — nicknamed “Sacra-tomato” — is a production hub.
About 100 people lined up at Cesar Chavez Park to fill boxes, bags and buckets with the free tomatoes. When the farmers on the trucks couldn’t bag the vegetables fast enough, office workers and downtown residents climbed on the trucks to help themselves.
Members of Senior Gleaners were also planning to take advantage of the giveaway. The volunteer group of mostly retirees goes into commercial groves and picks extra produce that would otherwise go to waste.
Elena Perez walked to the park from her office after hearing of the protest and left with a bag of tomatoes.
“I heard they were having problems, not able to get a good price,” she said. “I didn’t know much about it.”
Liz Easley, a Corps of Engineers employee, stocked up to make salsa.
“I understood there was a problem, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” she said, watching a co-worker balance one foot on a parking meter to reach into the trailer.
Tri Valley agreed to take 40 percent of the tomatoes they contracted for; the rest will probably be plowed under, Merwin said.
Tomato processing plants in Thornton and Los Banos were idled as Tri Valley scaled back this year’s tomato production to 40 percent of what wa soriginally contracted, said Maya Pogoda, spokeswoman for the cooperative.
Tri Valley is seeking a buyer, she said.
Merwin said that because of the bankruptcy, more than 500,000 tons of tomatoes won’t be processed this season.
“This has hurt us as badly as any drought or flood,” he said. “The fact that it came from a bankruptcy just means it’s coming from a different direction.”