(July 27) California tomato shippers said prices have been downright rotten since the beginning of the deal weeks ago, but they’re counting on some lifting of the market as summer’s heat causes yields to dwindle starting in mid-August.

No sizes have been spared, with prices the last two weeks of July foundering around $4.20 across the board, said Scott Vaughan salesman at Live Oak Farms, Le Grand, Calif. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the market’s low end was $3.70.

“I think August will pick up,” Vaughan said. “Usually, California yields go down in August, and there will be decreased shipments out of the East.”

This season drastically contrasts that of last year, when shippers in southern California weren’t in the season until July 4, and quality was average. This season started by late May, brought on by spring heat that also led to high-quality fruit.

On July 26, the USDA reported that rains curtailed Virginia’s Eastern Shore harvest, but prices from the previous week ended at $6.20-7.20 for all sizes; North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee round tomatoes were at $5 on the high end of the market.

At the same time in 2003, California’s central district had 25-pound mature greens at $9.20-10.20 for extra-larges and larges and $9.20 for mediums; two-layer flats of vine-ripes from California’s southern coast were at $14.35 for 4x4s and 4x5s, $12.35-13.35 for 5x5s and 5x6s.

Virginia’s Eastern Shore f.o.b.s in late July 2003 were $11.20 for 25-pound cartons of 5x6s through 6x7s.

When California started shipping this spring, Florida was still moving heavy volumes, shippers said. The USDA reported late June prices from south, central and west Florida at $6.20 for 25-pound cartons of mature greens, all sizes; California’s central district was at $4.20.

“We started out low, because the pipeline was full of tomatoes from Florida, and now we have too many hothouse tomatoes on the West Coast, and freight is too expensive to go to the East Coast,” said Dean Janssen, general manager of Ace Tomato Co. Inc., Manteca. “There’s virtually no mature greens on the retail shelves on the I-5 corridor from Mexico to Canada.”

Meanwhile, good yields and high quality throughout growing regions force companies to bypass picking some fields and stop packing No. 2 product, which won’t sell anyway, Janssen said.

Prices have hovered between $3 and $6 throughout the season, said David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff-Jackson Co., Oxnard. The exception, was a $1-2 hike on the lower end of that range around July 4, Cook said. Ever since, the market is having problems cracking the $5 barrier.

John King, vice president of sales for Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, said Mexico’s season is also facing setbacks. The USDA reported crossings through Otay Mesa at $5.35-6.35 for two-layer trays of vine ripe 4x4s and 4x5s; the smaller 5x5s and 5x6s were $4-4.35. A year ago, the 4x4s and 4x5s were $14.35-14.85.

Andrew and Williamson specializes in romas from Mexico, and King on July 27 said prices were between $4.90 and $5.90.