Dude, Fresno Is Just Too Cool

Ed Beckman can't get over it. Fresno is cool.

Not in the hip way, but in the weather way--and that's a problem.

While most of us would think 95-degree springtime temperatures and shudder, for tomato farmers they're a must. And this year those temperatures are almost absent.

Which is driving Beckman, president of the California Tomato Commission, up the wall. "I got up to walk the dog this morning and had to put on sweats," he complains. "Can you believe it?"

Growers are begging for a little warmth. "We'd like to see at least 80-degree days and 60-degree nights," Beckman says. "We're getting tired of 70-degree days. Let's face it, this is Fresno."

The unseasonably mild, cloudy weather brought by El Nin~o means California's fresh tomato harvest--like the harvests of just about every other major crop in the state--is running almost a full month behind last year.

Last year at this time, Beckman says, California growers had harvested roughly 400,000 cases of tomatoes. This year, it's more like 20,000. Despite this disastrous start, the projection for the overall harvest is only 15% to 20% less than last year.

"We could be OK if we get some good temperatures," Beckman says. "Where you get in trouble is when you get some tomatoes on the plants and then they just sit there. That's not what's happened this year. The plants went into the ground and just sat there. We never even got enough heat to get tomatoes."

If the heat kicks in, things could look up considerably. "The big question is, when will this break?" he says. "We're hearing now that we're stuck through June. That might not be so bad. A lot of our crop comes off in the fall, and that's a big opportunity for us. We're going to be watching and hoping we get a nice long and dry fall that will give our growers a break, because they certainly haven't had one on the front end."

Farmers' Market Watch

The Thursday market in Thousand Oaks might be a little hard to find (hint: it's behind the mall), but it's certainly worth the effort. The first tree fruits are in: in particular, apricots (mostly Castlebrite and Katy) from Jack Martin and Sanders Organic Produce in Bakersfield and Apkarian Farms and Boujikian Farms near Fresno.

There are also scattered cherries, including delicious Bings from Bautista Ranch near Stockton, and peaches and nectarines. Berries are also starting to show up. Pudwill's from Nipomo has delicious blackberries and some raspberries and Rosendahl Farms from near Fresno has boysenberries.

A few off-beat producers show up as well. Susan Elmasian from Camarillo sells smoked garlic, which she says can be pureed for salad dressings, and Lore's Basil from Camarillo has herb and heirloom tomato plants. Fife Farms from Visalia still has Tarocco blood oranges. Old favorite Harry's Berries, beloved for their Chandler strawberries and great green beans, are branching out into fresh soy beans and haricots verts. And there are spectacular California halibut, some good local salmon and snapper and sole sold by Anji II, a brother and sister team who fish out of the Channel Islands.

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