Revised, March, 2017
A native to South America, the tomato was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The early history of the tomato in the United States was characterized by the colonialist belief that the brightly colored fruit was poisonous. By the time commercial production began in the mid-1800s, the tomato was well established as a popular produce item in the American diet and is consumed in diverse ways, including raw, as an ingredient in many dishes and sauces, and in drinks. Tomatoes are the second most consumed vegetable in the U.S, behind potatoes. In 2015, fresh market and processed consumption was 20.6 pounds and 56.2 pounds per capita, respectively. The U.S. tomato processing industry, comprised primarily of tomato pastes, sauces and canned tomato products, is distinctly separate from the fresh-market industry. Tomatoes have significant nutritional value; they are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin A and antioxidants.
The marketing methods of the two industry segments differ. The majority of fresh tomatoes are handpicked and sold on the open market, while all processed tomatoes are mechanically harvested and sold under contract, with only 1 percent sold on the open market.
Fresh-market tomatoes are produced in every state, with commercial-scale production in about 20 States. Florida edged out California as the largest producer, which is likely due to the ongoing drought in California where production has dropped in the last few years. Florida and California together comprise over two-thirds of total U.S. fresh-tomato acreage. The USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture shows that the total acreage in tomato production has dropped 10 percent since 2007 while the number of farms producing tomatoes rose by 20 percent. The census showed that the largest growth was in farms producing tomatoes on five acres or less. This may be attributed to the increase in the number of small-scale vegetable farms producing for the local market.
In 2015, approximately 1.35 million tons of fresh market tomatoes were harvested from approximately 94,300 acres with a total value of $1.22 billion. A total of 14.7 million tons of process tomatoes were grown on 310,600 acres in 2015, with a total value of approximately $1.39 billion.
According to the August 26, 2016 California Processing Tomato Report, NASS, USDA, California tomato processors anticipated contracting a total of 12.8 million short tons in 2016—a 11-percent decrease from the amount produced under contract from 2015. Estimated contract acreage of 258,000 is 13 percent below last year’s contracted acreage. The decline in 2016 processing tomato crop is partly attributed to limited water supplies brought by the on-going California’s drought, higher disease and pest pressures, and possibly high stocks resulting from last year’s record-large crop and the strong U.S. dollar.
Tomatoes are warm-season crops and are sensitive to frost at any growth stage, so field planting in temperate climates occurs after the threat of frost is past in the spring or transplants are planted and grown under row covers in late spring. Tomatoes produced in temperate climates are also grown in greenhouses and under plastic covered high tunnels to extend the production season. The emergence of greenhouse tomato production has begun to change the shape of the U.S. fresh-market tomato industry. Greenhouse tomato production allows producers to grow fresh tomatoes in structures, sometimes using methods of climate control and alternative soils. Advantages of greenhouse production include uniform appearance and quality, consistency in production, increased yields per acre and enhanced grower capability to sustain year-round production. The national average yield per acre for field-grown fresh market tomatoes was 28,700 pounds per acre in 2015.
Resources and References
Vegetable and Pulses Outlook (USDA ERS, 2016)
Vegetables, 2014 Summary (USDA NASS, 2015)
Sample Costs to Produce Fresh Market Tomatoes, University of California Cooperative Extension, 2007.
Budget for Greenhouse Tomatoes, Mississippi State University Extension, revised 2007.
Processing Tomato Production in California, Vegetable Research and Information Center, University of California, 2008.
Production of Greenhouse Tomatoes, Florida Greenhouse Vegetable Production Handbook, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, reviewed 2008.
High tunnel tomatoes, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, 2009.
Fresh-Market Tomato Production in California, University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center, 2000.
Vegetables Annual Summary, NASS, USDA. 2014.