Playing ketchup: Tomato industry concentration

Tomato season is over for most of the United States, so it’s time to start shifting our tomato thoughts to canned, dried, and jarred tomatoes. Although tomatoes can be grown in all 50 states of the union, odds are 10-to-1 that a tomato found in a can, jar, or processed product was grown in California. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle presented some incredible statistics about the level of concentration in the processed tomato industry.

Before World War II, there were commercial growers and canners in many states — including Delaware, Virginia, Utah, New Jersey and New York — and California produced only 20% of the nation’s tomatoes. Thanks to the development of both mechanical harvesting equipment and tomato varieties that can be picked by machine, the number rose to 50% in 1953, and reached 95% in 2007. (The 20% and 50% figures are from the “Oxford Companion to American Food,” the 95% figure is from the Chronicle.) There are several reasons for California’s dominance in the processed tomato business, with the biggest one being a climate that allows a far longer harvest period (90 days vs. 45 days) and is less hospitable to disease because of its low humidity and lack of summer rain.

Concentration in the tomato industry goes beyond the farm, into the seed business, where just three companies — Heinz, Bayer CropScience and Monsanto — control 90% of the market.

Running a huge tomato farm — the average size is about 1,000 acres — is expensive.  After the cost of equipping yourself with the necessary harvesting, spraying, and irrigation equipment (or paying rental fees), add annual expenses for diesel fuel, seed, water, chemicals, and labor, which run about $2,700 per acre. Plenty of volatility in the diesel and water markets make things exciting. The payoff for this investment?  An average price of 3.5 cents per pound.

Another, probably minor, reason for California’s dominance is USDA regulations that stifle vegetable growers in the Midwest and Great Plains. During the Farm Bill debate, Philip Brasher at the Des Moines Register (via and Minnesota farmer Jack Hedin (in the New York Times) wrote about rules that penalize those who currently receive commodity subsidies if they plant “specialty crops” (fruits, nuts, vegetables, and flowers) with fines and a ban on receiving future subsidies for crops grown on the land. Despite vigorous opposition from specialty crop growers in California, Florida, and other temperate states, Congress is slowly chipping away at the restrictions. The latest Food and Farm Bill authorized a pilot program in seven Midwestern states that lets farmers plant tomatoes and six other crops on “base acres” (i.e., land used for “program crops” like corn and soy in the past) without penalty. This provision and many others are summarized in a report on the 2008 Food and Farm Bill from the Congressional Research Service.

Today’s processed tomato industry exemplifies a few features of our food system. First, it shows how much it has changed in just a few decades: not too long ago, there were tomato processors all over the nation. Second, it highlights the role of national policies on local food systems. Farmers in Indiana or Iowa — especially those who lease their land — face significant obstacles in meeting demand for locally grown produce.  Although it can be tough to inspire grassroots activity around slogans like “Eliminate the penalty for planting specialty crops on base acres,” I’m hopeful that the change in leadership in Washington will inspire new efforts to chip away at the distrubing level of concentration and centralization of much of this nation’s food system.

9 Responsesto “Playing ketchup: Tomato industry concentration”

  1. Given how much I support the tomato industry with my purchases of canned/jarred organic tomatoes, this is really interesting stuff to me.  I buy fresh tomatoes from my local growers during the normal season, and I’ve tried growing my own on my porch garden (which didn’t work–not enough sun).  But canning them myself from local tomatoes is so expensive in terms of the tomatoes used that buying them at the store makes more sense.  I’d love to see my region (the Southeastern US) selling canned tomatoes grown around here—I’d pay a bit more to buy those.

  2. Foodzie says:

    Fascinating post! Wow. I knew California was high, but didn’t realize it dominated 95%.  This statement was also really eye-opening for me.  “Concentration in the tomato industry goes beyond the farm, into the seed business, where just three companies — Heinz, Bayer CropScience and Monsanto — control 90% of the market.” Thanks for a great post. 

  3. Pat Anderson says:

    Scary. It makes the risk of collapse due to a single point of failure that much higher.
    One sentence:Thanks to the development of both mechanical harvesting equipment and tomato varieties that can be picked by machine, the number rose to 50% in 1953, and reached 95% in 2007.
    points to why people are starting to grow tomatoes again, and that we’re not imagining the industrial tomatoes to be tasteless. They’re grown so they can be picked by machine.

  4. Tony says:

    And if you are talking about tomatoes grown abroad, this story from Slate is pretty fascinating:

  5. Emily says:

    Dei Fratelli and Red Gold tomatoes are grown in the Midwest. Many Dei Fratelli tomatoes are grown organically (though not enough to be certified) and they are guaranteed non-GMO and no HFCS. And their pizza sauce is the best I’ve ever tasted. :)

  6. As a buyer of many tomatoes for a catering company, what I would like to see is an alternative to this problem. I was led to your story from Tom Philpott’s post on Grist, and neither he nor you have prescribed a solution – where are we to purchase from to do what we can as consumers to reverse this trend? Buying at the local health food/grocery store (when the Farmer’s Markets have closed for the year) offers plenty of organic and sustainable options, but what about purchasing in bulk? I am having a hard time trying to find the brands I want to support and serve to my customers.

  7. Tricia –

    While the post above and Tom’s post on tomatoes don’t give much space to solutions to the problem of overconcentration, we have both mentioned various ideas in the past. However, most of them are somewhat longer term than you might like. For example, as I mentioned in the post above, USDA rules need to be changed so that it is less onerous for farmers to switch crops (but policy moves slowly). We can learn how to can tomatoes at home (but summer is long gone). We can set up community canning centers so that more people can preserve their own produce for the winter. We can also try to buy from local canners like Northern California’s Happy Girl Kitchens or the companies mentioned in a comment above. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any comprehensive list of sources of local tomatoes for caterers, restaurants and other eaters.  Perhaps this is something for the Eat Well Guide or Local Harvest to take up…

    Tom has quite a few posts about how we can rebuild a local food system — the one that I can think or right now is a story about Sioux City, Iowa, where “concerted community organizing and public investment” is recreating a local food movement.

  8. Mark,
    Thanks for the response. I have not been to this web site before, but I will search through older posts for more ideas. I will look into Happy Girl Kitchens – thanks for the tip.
    Keep up the great work!

  9. Emily says:

    I am trying to populate a wiki with the origins of many grocery store products to make it easier to find canned goods and other “branded” foods that come from your area. I would greatly appreciate help updating it – for example, adding Happy Girl Kitchens to the list!