Some Western tomato growers are strongly committed and have taken the plunge, some wade at the shallow end and some simply are not ready to get their toes wet.

There is no dominant consensus when it comes to organic tomatoes.

Among those on the strongly committed list is San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce. The company offers organic romas on a year-round basis, said John King, vice president of sales. As is the case with the Andrew & Williamson's other tomato products, the fruit is grown in Mexico."

"Our organic romas are produced near Culiacan on the eastern side of the Gulf of California," King said, "and we're looking to add other organic commodities."

The DiMare Newman, Newman, Calif., took a run at the organic category.

Growers in West differ on organic tomatoes

"We gave it up about six or seven years ago," said Jeff Dolan, field operations manager. "The dollars just weren't there for the headaches."

Manteca, Calif.-based Ace Tomato Co. Inc. does not market organic tomatoes, but it is not opposed to the idea.

"I think there are opportunities for retailers," said John Lupul, general manager. "For the grower, being able to react to grow enough acreage to offset overhead and cost of production is a challenge, though."

Oceanside Produce, Oceanside, Calif., is another California grower that sees potential, but is not yet on board.

"We kind of look at it every year," said Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing. "I'd love to have it for marketing, but don't really have anyone on staff who just plain lives and breathes organic."

Jumping into the organic category for marketing purposes is not a wise approach, he said.

"It's real easy to flood the market," Wilber said. "The yields are lower, and it's a much, much different program than what we do."

Members of the Fresno-based California Tomato Farmers cooperative grow about 90% of the fresh tomatoes produced in the state, said Ed Beckman, the cooperative's president.

"The organic category remains a pretty small part of the California deal, but the organic heirlooms are getting some attention," he said.

Red Rooster Sales, Firebaugh, Calif., almost took the plunge, said Jack Corrigan, sales manager.

"We had leased some land near Hollister (Calif.) just for that purpose, but clogging problems with the drip system forced us to use chemicals."

The chemicals meant starting the three-year certification process over, a move the company decided against.

The organic acreage of Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., may be down slightly this season, said David Cook, sales manager. Organic volume is a small percentage of the company's overall production, he said, but the dividends extend to its conventional crops.

"We want to keep our hand in, keep trying," Cook said. "First, there's some demand for it, and, second, it's important to us as growers to be trying these techniques and see what works and what doesn't work."

Organic growing techniques are being used with conventional crops, he said, because the approach is less expensive and often a more-efficient method.

"It's good to keep your hand in the organic pond to learn the new techniques and apply those to conventional growing," Cook said.

The tomato grower for Deardorff Family Farms uses what he calls a soft technique, Cook said. He uses as few harsh chemicals as possible and organic practices as much as he can.

San Diego-based Pinos Produce does not market organic tomatoes, said Danny Uribe, sales manager. But it is an approach to which he's given some thought.

The company's Baja California grower uses shade houses for all of the tomato varieties Pinos Produce sells. So switching to organic for some of the inventory would not be a stretch, Uribe said.

"If we were to go organic, it would probably be an easy process or an easy step, because it's so well controlled and managed it would not be difficult to get certified," he said.

Other major Western growers who do not market organic tomatoes include Tracy, Calif.-based Pacific Triple E and Expo Fresh LLC, San Diego.

The organic tomato category seems to be something of a paradox.

"Tomatoes are a commodity that hasn't truly scratched the surface on the organic deal," Lupul said. "But it's a difficult commodity to grow organically."

Organic apples, carrots and lettuce are less of a challenge, he said.

"The tomato market is a volatile market in itself," Lupul said.

Another hurdle for organics could be the category's failure to substantiate health benefits over conventionally grown tomatoes.

"Neither one is more healthful than the other," Dolan said. "It's a lifestyle choice."