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Tomato growers are seeing red

Author: Pamela Niskanen

Over the summer I gorged myself on perfect Campari tomatoes, grown in New Zealand and delivered to my supermarket richly red, perfectly sized and still bound to fragrant trusses. I think it has been the best tomato season in recent memory. Behind the scenes, there’s a whole lot of hurt going on.

I spoke to Chris Thompson who runs BioForce, a niche provider of biological control agents for pests and diseases of horticultural crops. He works with tomato growers nationwide and filled me in on the obstacle course they have been running lately. Staffing shortages are probably the biggest stress, many growers are barely maintaining operations with 40%-50% of their pre-COVID staff levels. I always find plenty of tomatoes when I want them, so these reduced teams must be logging some serious hours to get my snack to me.

Transportation is the next chokepoint, because of labor shortages but also heightened regulations, road closures around lockdowns and rising fuel costs. Tomato growers battling whitefly incursions depend on BioForce for a solution: weekly shipments of live domestically bred Encarsia who, when released in the greenhouse, will feed on and parasitize their whitefly That’s a terrific system when it works, but delivery timelines have been shattered. Ideally the “good guy” insects, as Chris calls them, should leave his facility and be released at their destination within a few days. Now they are sitting in vehicles or depots for a few weeks exposed to extreme conditions. One package he sent before Christmas just arrived the first week of March. Every delivery of dead biocontrols means growers might turn to their chemical arsenal to battle the whitefly. Who has time for expensive, time consuming spraying?

In addition to basic operational disruptions, growers face selling in a highly competitive market, in which independent retailers have dwindled while the supermarket duopoly drives down growers’ margins. At the same time, regulatory pressures from NZGAP, changes in the emissions trading scheme and rising inflation occupy the head and desk space of every greenhouse manager.

Growers take all the work off my plate by delivering perfectly ripe succulent tomatoes. Other crews back the growers. Tomatoes NZ represents growers, working with lawmakers, gathering research and churning out fact sheets on pests and diseases to watch for. The Find-A-Pest app, developed by collaborators at Scion Research and Lincoln University as part of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, is available free to all growers to quickly photograph, report and get identification on a range of pests and diseases. Reporting of pests is critical to ensuring quality data is available to manage existing and support early detection of new pest species. Additionally, a seven-year, $27 million programme called A Lighter Touch is taking an evolved approach to IPM, deploying agroecological methods in trial programmes with the aim of reducing crop protection’s chemical footprint.

Tomato Red Spider mites covering a tomato
Image: Alain Migeon and Franck Dorkeld (2019) Spider Mite

With support and tools in place growers can be ready to spar with new contenders when they arrive: Tomato Brown Rugos Fruit Virus (ToBRFV), the tomato leafminer Tuta absoluta or Tomato Red Spider Mite. I’ll keep buying tomatoes right through winter, and I’m not alone – the average New Zealand household eats nearly 10kgs of them a year. Now that I know every sweet juicy bite includes funding for scientists, advocacy and reduced emissions and agrichemicals, I’m willing to pay top prices.


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