(May 14) Shippers of the Arkansas vine-ripe tomato deal expect a heavier emphasis on romas this season and consistent to lower acreage.

The Arkansas deal also could face less pressure this season from Quincy, Fla., where harvest is expected to start early and could be hastened by hot and dry weather, said Gary Margolis, president of Gem Tomato & Vegetable Sales Inc., Boca Raton, Fla. The company has a branch in Monticello, Ark.

In mid-May, shippers said the Arkansas tomato harvest looked to be on time and maybe a little early.

Usually, the deal begins with light volumes within five days of June 10, said Michael Hensley, co-owner of Harrod & Hensley Tomato Co., Hermitage, Ark. Peak volumes come between June 25 and the Fourth of July, he said.

Early signs show the crop slightly ahead on its production schedule. Still, Hensley, noting 60-degree weather in mid-May, said things could slow down again.

Initial fruit set and quality looked good, he said.

Because of their status as one of the first of the “homegrown” tomato deals of the summer and their reputation for flavor, Arkansas vine-ripes can draw early f.ob.s. as high as $16-18 for a 20-pound box, said Brooks Lisenbey, sales manager of Nogales, Ariz.-based Arkansas Tomato Shippers LLC, which has a branch in Monticello. Then, as more production gets under way, markets quickly adjust downward, he said.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture first reported f.o.b.s June 10, when cartons of 4x4s and 4x5s from southern Arkansas fetched mostly $12. From there, the price fell to $10-11 June 18, $7-8 June 26 and $7 July 2.

The deal usually continues into late July, depending on weather and the market, Hensley said.

Still, some may go longer. Lisenbey said the use of new varieties could enable Arkansas Tomato Shippers to have an eight-week deal instead of six weeks.

“We’ve been unable to do that before,” he said.

Randy Clanton Farms, Hermitage, which is associated with Arkansas Tomato Shippers, is using a long shelf life Israeli seed this summer, owner Randy Clanton said. The new variety is more resistant to disease and provides a canopy that helps the tomatoes weather the heat better, he said.

Last year, the LSLs worked well for the company, Clanton said.

Other growers, including Hensley, are sticking with the mountain varieties more commonly grown for the deal.

The LSL varieties are still improving, Hensley said, and it remains to be seen how they will perform in varying weather.

Roma tomatoes are gaining further ground in the Arkansas deal. Lisenbey estimated his company alone would have 60,000 to 90,000 25-pound boxes.

Hensley said he expects less than that, maybe 2% to 3% of his total production.

Expectations for acreage largely call for similar levels as last year. Clanton said a few growers have opted not to grow any tomatoes and that larger players have taken up the slack.

Hensley said he expects similar acreage as last year, which was off 30% from the 2000 crop.

On the other hand, Paul Teague, president of Delta Fresh Inc., Jonesboro, Ark., said he expects substantially less production. He cited reasons that include the ring spot virus, a lack of financing for growers and low markets last year.

“It was just tough,” Teague said. Overall production for the deal could yield only 500,000 boxes of vine-ripes. That includes two-layer 20-pound boxes and 25-pound loose fill.