Tomato growers meeting Tuesday in Modesto heard two tidbits from market research: Moms still plan most family meals, and they love to use Facebook.
The 67th annual meeting of the California Tomato Growers Association featured details of a new campaign to promote consumption via social media.
The group, which deals with cannery-bound tomatoes rather than the fresh market, is taking part in a three-year effort using media reached by consumers on computers and other devices. It could be videos on YouTube, recipes shared on Pinterest, or photos of tomato-based dishes posted to Instagram.
“Social media is very, very contagious, and it’s free to use,” said Frank Murchison, a “value solutions” associate with Google, which is helping with the campaign.
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The meeting at the DoubleTree Hotel also touched on the drought, which could cut into the tomato supply for canneries that employ several thousand people in and near Stanislaus County in summer.
“You know this better than I do – the hydrological issues we have this year are exceptional,” said Karen Ross, secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Jerry Brown.
The tomato industry has remained a key part of the region’s economy thanks to the popularity of salsa, pasta sauce, ketchup and other foods made with processed tomatoes. Growers note that the crop is picked at the peak of ripeness – unlike fresh tomatoes, which sometimes are less than fully red – and that tomatoes are convenient and affordable.
The grower group is part of the Tomato Products Wellness Council, which promotes the foods as good sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, lycopene and other nutrients.
The council has lined up Google, a giant in the online world, to help with the social media promotions.
Keith Wright, who works in strategic relations for Google, said mothers are especially active on social media and could be receptive to ads, forums and other means of promoting tomatoes.
“The consumers of today want to be in contact with the producers of tomatoes and the processors and the brands,” he said.
The campaign will be cheaper for the industry than traditional advertising, including TV spots a few years back that featured the nutrition message.
“We are a highly consumed commodity, but we are always looking for ways to expand our reach, expand our influence,” said Mike Montna, president and chief executive officer of the growers group, based in Sacramento.
The canneries make some items directly for consumers, such as ketchup and diced tomatoes. Other products, including large vats of tomato paste, become ingredients for other food companies around the world. Montna noted that paste exports rose 26 percent from 2012 to 2013 and have doubled since 2008.
California’s processing tomato crop dipped last year to 12.1 million tons, nearly 1 million less than in 2012, because of heat spikes and a disease called curly top virus.
Montna said the harvest could rebound to 13.5 million tons this year, based on a survey of grower intentions, but reduced water supplies could mean less planting in the spring.
The growers association and a majority of processors have agreed to a price of $83 per ton for the 2014 crop, one of the highest in the past decade. The strong demand and reduced inventories helped boost the number.
“The price is fair compared to the other crops we could grow,” said Aaron Barcellos, a grower near Los Banos. He produces several tree and row crops but expects to fallow some of his land because of sharp water reductions on the West Side.
Ron Dutra of Bowsmith Inc., a drip irrigation manufacturer in Tulare County, displayed his wares in a DoubleTree exhibit hall. He said most tomato growers long have used this method, which brings water directly to the roots, but it won’t make up for a severe drought.
“The industry is growing, the (tomato) prices are good, but without rain, that’s kind of a moot point,” he said.