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Extreme weather raises risk for California tomato growers, impacts famed North Beach restaurant Tommaso's

Unpredictable summer weather highlights risk for California tomato growers
Unpredictable summer weather highlights risk for California tomato growers 03:26

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tommaso's Restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach serves up some of the most authentic Italian food outside of the "Bel paese."

From the thin-crust pizza baked to perfection in a wood-fire brick oven that can be traced back to those used in ancient Rome, to the ample servings of home-cooked, marinara-drenched pasta, customers devour everything on the menu. 

The secret is in the sauce.

"It's so good. I don't know what they put in it but it's delicious," exclaimed longtime customer Juliet Dwight.

Tommaso's depends on a reliable supply of tomato sauce.

"This place without tomato sauce? We could close the doors. That's how vital that product is for us," explained owner Agostino Crotti

The recipe may be pure Italy but the tomatoes are all California. Tommaso's uses lots of tomatoes -- all grown and processed in the Central Valley.

"Sixty gallons a week of tomato sauce and about 10 cases of fresh tomatoes,"  Crotti's wife Anna said as she took a break from preparing sauce for the restaurant.

California's tomato farmers are responsible for more than 95 percent of processed tomatoes in the United States. Of all the tomatoes grown commercially on earth, nearly 30 percent is grown in California. It's a top agricultural commodity worth about $1.18 billion. 

When it comes to tomatoes, California's extreme weather is serving up some big trouble for restaurateurs like the Crotti Family.

"A lot of it has to do with the weather. It will be another really rough tomato season," Crotti's sister Carmen said.

Five years of drought have created a tomato shortage. Last year, an extreme heat wave late in the season shriveled tomatoes on the vine.

This year, heavy winter storms put Central Valley fields under water, preventing farmers from planting on schedule.

"There's a lot of tomatoes in the ground right now but the real challenge is going to come at harvest time," farmer Cannon Michael said. 

Michael, a sixth-generation farmer, heads up the Bowles Farming Company near Los Banos.

Fresh market and processing tomatoes is the largest crop on his 11,000-acre farm.

"Our processing tomato crop is about a third of what we grow here," Michael said.

In California, tomatoes are planted, harvested and processed according to a staggered, state-wide schedule.

"They start in the southern part of the valley where it gets hotter first and then the planting starts there and then it goes north," Michael explained. 

According to the California Tomato Growers Association, once harvested, the tomatoes are processed within six hours.

Eleven tomato processors operate 16 plants throughout the Central Valley. If the extreme weather continues, the impact could be crushing. There could be bottlenecks at the plants. 

"We're a little nervous about what might happen down the road," Michael said.

Because of shortened planting season, a very unusual situation has cropped up. The nonprofit CTGA told KPIX that, instead of 28 percent of the crop being processed after mid-September, 50 percent of the state's tomatoes will now get processed. That is an unusually large percentage so late in the season. 

A lot can happen between then and now on the tomato fields and Michael remains optimistic. Even so, if there's an extreme heat wave or rain event, these tomatoes simply can't all be processed.

That could lead to shortages.

"I would anticipate that some of your favorite products you might have a hard time finding them in the stores," Michael warned.

As for Tommaso's, the Crottis have already seen a jump in prices. They can't remember ever paying $1 for each fresh tomato they use for their dishes. As for the canned tomatoes, they're using up last year's supplies and they're paying more for each gallon.

They can't imagine passing on the costs to their customers. "No, we do not ... We take the loss," Anna Crotti insisted.

Many customers told KPIX that the staff at Tommaso's is like family and the Crottis are grateful for their loyal customers.

"It sounds corny but we really are a family," Carmen said.

 "Global warming is making food supply more of a challenge. We hope for better times ahead," said Agostino. 


Tommaso's Ristorante Italiano

Bowles Farming Company

California Tomato Growers Association

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