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Center for Crop Diversification Crop Profile

Organic Tomatoes
Cheryl Kaiser1 and Matt Ernst2
Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are one of
the most popular fresh market vegetables grown
commercially in Kentucky. With the rising
consumer demand for organic products, organic
tomatoes should be an excellent prospect for
local fresh market sales.

Organic tomatoes are produced using pest

management and fertilization methods that do
not include synthetic compounds. Growers
producing and selling tomatoes with an organic
label must be certified by a USDA-approved
state agency (e.g. the Kentucky Department
of Agriculture) or private agency, plus follow
production standards regulated by the National grown may be an effective way to attract new
Organic Program (NOP). customers. New producers should consider low-
volume retail sales opportunities initially (such
Marketing as farmers markets or roadside stands); large-
Tomatoes are grown in Kentucky primarily for scale production usually requires knowledge of
fresh market sales. Planting for very early or for wholesale marketing channels, which can handle
late fall markets often brings the most profit since larger volumes of produce.
prices tend to be higher. Fresh market options
for organic tomatoes include roadside stands, Market Outlook
farmers markets, local grocery stores, community Tomatoes, lettuce, and carrots are the three most
supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions, commonly grown certified organic vegetables in
produce wholesalers, and produce auctions. the United States. Organically grown tomatoes
Restaurants and health food stores may also be tend to not only be popular among those interested
interested in locally produced organic products. in the consumption of organic
vegetables for health or ideological
Offering educational materials for reasons, but also among farmers
consumers at farmers markets about market consumers seeking unique
how the organic tomatoes were varieties and flavors. Certified
Cheryl Kaiser is a former Extension Associate with the Center for Crop Diversification.
Matt Ernst is an independent contractor with the Department of Agricultural Economics.
Agriculture & Natural Resources Family & Consumer Sciences 4-H/Youth Development Community & Economic Development
organic greenhouse tomato production has helped Tomatoes are quite cold-sensitive, so low-lying
grow the organic tomato category. fields that are subject to late frosts should be
avoided. Locate tomato fields where plants
Organically grown tomatoes can command will not be damaged by herbicide drift from
premium prices, especially when offered neighboring conventional fields. Fields should be
for early- and late-season availability. Even rotated out of tomatoes and related solanaceous
at wholesale price levels, certified organic crops (e.g. tobacco, pepper, and potatoes) for
tomatoes may command price premiums of 10 a period of three years to avoid pest problems
to 50 percent more than conventionally grown common to this plant family. Tomatoes do well
produce. However, these premiums may vary when transplanted to a field where fescue sod
considerably between market areas. was plowed under the previous fall.

Producers should develop a detailed marketing Healthy soil is the key to successful organic
plan for certified organic produce and understand production. Soil fertility can be enhanced by
differences in pricing between organic and properly aged animal manure, green manure
conventional produce in their region. Daily (cover crops turned under prior to planting),
wholesale price reports for terminal markets and approved natural fertilizers. There are no
around the country can be accessed on the Fruit restrictions regarding the source of manure;
and Vegetable Marketing News page of the that is, it can come from conventional farming
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. operations. However, the NOP does regulate
Some archived price information and reports the timing of the application of raw manure to
about organic produce prices are also available at minimize the risk of pathogens being transferred
the USDA Economic Research Service website. to the harvested portion of the crop. In addition,
compost and composted manure must meet
Higher prices for certified organic produce are specific processing requirements.
often critical for profitable organic production.
While cover crops of grasses (e.g. rye) will
Producers may choose to offer point-of-purchase
increase organic matter, nitrogen-fixing legumes
information to new organic consumers about
(e.g. hairy vetch) have the additional benefit
the costs of organic certification and potentially
of providing nitrogen. High levels of nitrogen
greater labor costs that may be incurred with
can result in excess foliage at the cost of fruit
organic tomato production. Some consumer
production. Supplemental organic nutrient
education resources for producers may be
sources include bloodmeal, fishmeal, cottonseed
available through the Organic Trade Association.
meal, and soybean meal. Tomatoes require
moderate to high levels of phosphorus, potassium,
Production Considerations and calcium in balanced proportions.
Site selection and preparation
Only land that has been free of prohibited Cultivar selection and transplant production
substances (e.g. synthetic pesticides and artificial Cultivar selection is a critical decision for any
fertilizers) for three years can be certified for commercial crop, but it is especially important in
organic production. Selecting a site that is well- organic production. With fewer pest management
suited to the crop is especially important in options available, it is vital to identify selections
organic production. Healthy, fast growing plants with resistance and/or tolerance to as many
can better tolerate or outgrow pest problems. prevailing diseases and insects as possible.

Choose a site for tomato production with well- Tomato varietal selection is further complicated
drained soil that warms up quickly in the spring. by the myriad of horticultural characteristics
available. Fruit may differ in size (cherry-size growers use approximately 4,200 to 5,000 plants
to one pound or more in weight), color (pink, per acre.
yellow, orange, red, red-black, striped), shape
(pear, oval, blocky, globe), flavor, acid content, The use of mulch will help preserve soil moisture,
and intended use (canning, paste, salad, slicing, moderate soil temperatures, and prevent weed
drying). Tomatoes may be open-pollinated or germination near plants. In addition, mulches
a hybrid. Growth habit is classified as either can reduce the incidence of soil borne diseases
determinate (bush with a limited production that occur when soil is splashed on fruit and
season) or indeterminate (vining with a longer foliage, as well as reduce fruit contact with the
production season). Cultivars may also differ in soil. Mulching materials can include natural
earliness (early-, mid-, and late-season). Other materials (e.g. straw or wood chips) or allowable
factors that can dictate varietal selection for synthetic materials (e.g. newspaper). Plastic
fresh markets is consumer demand and regional mulch is permitted in organic production if it is
preferences, which can include heirloom removed at the end of the harvest season.
cultivars. Adaptability to local conditions and
suitability to intended production practices must University of Kentucky on-farm demonstrations
also be considered. have shown that the highest profits can be
obtained with raised beds covered with black
Organic production requires the use of certified plastic and using drip irrigation. Black plastic
organic seed and organic transplant production may also enhance earliness by warming soils in
the spring. The moisture levels under the plastic
methods. Individual organic certifiers may
must be carefully monitored with tensiometers
permit the use of untreated conventional seed if
so that the moisture remains relatively constant
suitable organic seed is unavailable; however,
during the growing season. Allowing soils to dry
growers must be able to document their effort to
and then rapidly applying large volumes of water
obtain certified organic seed from at least three
can result in fruit cracking; fluctuations in soil
different sources. Neither seed nor transplants
moisture can also lead to blossom end rot.
can be treated with any prohibited substances,
such as synthetic fungicides.
The use of organic mulch has the further
advantage of improving the soil by adding
Stocky, container-grown transplants are most organic matter back into the soil as it decays.
desirable for transplanting as they will result in Organic mulches also tend to keep soils cooler
higher early yields than bare-root plants. The in the heat of summer. However, organic mulch
higher prices generally commanded by early will also keep soils cooler in the spring, which
tomatoes usually more than offsets the higher could delay early season growth.
cost of good quality container-grown plants.
Many growers produce transplants in 72 or 128 Sucker removal (pruning) should be done as
cell trays, although some grow transplants for needed to reduce vegetative growth and encourage
their earliest crops in larger cells. Tomatoes will fruit development. It is important to strike a good
tend to get leggy if produced in smaller cell balance between fruit and foliage, as excessive
trays where plants are tightly spaced. pruning can reduce yields and fruit quality.

Planting and crop management Tomato plants grown organically should be

Transplanting is done after the last killing frost supported and trained using cages, stakes,
for a spring crop and in July for a fall crop. The or a trellis system. While support systems
earliest and latest safe planting dates for tomatoes require additional material and labor, the
vary according to the region of Kentucky. Most benefits generally outweigh the costs in
organic production. Supporting plants results keeping ahead of potential problems; monitoring
in improved fruit quality, less post-harvest fruit diseases and pests requires accurate identification.
decay, and increased yields when compared to
unsupported plants (sprawl culture). Support Tomatoes are subject to a large number of
systems, along with pruning, result in improved diseases, which includes anthracnose, bacterial
air circulation through plants, thus fewer foliar canker, bacterial spot, early blight, Fusarium wilt,
disease problems. Additionally, supported plants root knot nematode, Septoria leaf spot, southern
are easier to harvest. The support system should blight, and Verticillium wilt. Late blight can
be in place two to three weeks after transplanting. be a problem during cooler growing seasons.
Stakes or posts can be made of metal or wood; Growing varieties with multiple resistances to
however, wooden stakes cannot be treated with locally prevalent diseases is essential to effective
arsenate or other prohibited materials. disease management in organic systems. While
there are some organically approved fungicides
Organic crops must be protected from potential available (such as copper and sulfur products)
contamination by adjoining conventional farms, they should not be applied routinely. Excessive
as well as from non-organic fields in split copper can be damaging to certain beneficial soil
operations. The drift and run-off of prohibited organisms, and sulfur will injure plant foliage at
substances can compromise the farms organic high temperatures. A list of approved products
certification status. Preventative strategies can be found on the Organic Materials Review
include the use of buffer zones and barriers, Institute (OMRI) Web site.
altering drainage patterns, posting no spray
signs, and cooperating with neighboring Potential insect pests include aphids, cutworms,
conventional farmers. Growers with split flea beetles, fruitworms, mites, and stinkbugs.
operations must take steps to prevent the Trap crops, approved insecticides (such as
commingling of their two systems. insecticidal soap and Bt), and beneficial insects
can help organic growers manage insect pests.
Pest management
Organic tomato production can be very Since herbicides cannot be used, organic growers
challenging in Kentucky due to the number will need to implement alternative measures for
of diseases that can reduce harvest quality and weed control. Weed management begins with
yields. Pest management in organic systems careful site selection; thus, sites with perennial
emphasizes prevention through good production noxious weeds that have historically been difficult
and cultural methods. The goal is not necessarily to control should be avoided. The planned crop
the complete elimination of pest problems, but rotation program, as well as site preparation,
rather to manage insects and diseases to keep should be directed at making sure existing weeds
crop damage within acceptable economic levels. are under control prior to planting.

Effective and economically efficient pest Maintaining a weed-free planting is most

management in organic farming requires multiple critical during the first four to five weeks after
strategies and an integrated systems approach. transplanting. Once plants have reached a
Following good cultural practices, such as height of 12 to 15 inches they are better able to
maximizing air circulation (e.g., with plant compete with weedy vegetation. However, if left
spacing, pruning, and trellising), rotating crops, unchecked, weeds compete with plants for water
maintaining well-balanced fertility, managing and nutrients, harbor insect and disease pests,
soil moisture, and practicing sanitation, can go and reduce air circulation. Weeds should not be
a long way in preventing problems that would allowed to go to seed. Plastic or organic mulches
reduce yields. Frequent scouting is essential to can be used to suppress weed development within
rows, while mowing, shallow tillage, and living can also vary according to specific production
mulches are techniques for managing weeds systems and practices. For tomato production in
between rows. a 100-foot x 4-foot bed, Iowa State University
has estimated about five hours for production and
Harvest and storage six to seven hours for harvest and postharvest
Products grown organically but harvested during activities.
the transition period cannot be marketed as
organic. Only those crops that have met NOP Economic Considerations
production and certification standards, including Initial investments include land preparation, the
the three-year minimum transition period, can be purchase of seed or transplants, and the purchase
marketed and sold as certified organic or organic. of stakes or other training system. Additional
start-up costs can include the installation of
Harvesting operations, storage areas, and an irrigation system and black plastic mulch.
packaging materials must comply with NOP Organic certification costs will also be incurred
standards. Growers with split operations must in certified organic tomato production.
either use separate equipment and facilities for
these operations or decontamination protocol For small-scale organic tomato production, total
must be followed before use in the organic end production costs (including fixed costs of land
of the enterprise. Packaging materials must be and organic certification) are estimated at $220
protected against potential contamination from for a 100-foot by 4-foot bed. Returns will vary
prohibited substances. based on yield and price. Assuming yields of
400 pounds sold at $2 per pound, this bed could
Tomato fruit is easily damaged and should be return as much as $680 above total costs.
handled as carefully as possible in all picking,
grading, packing, and hauling operations. Fruit Production costs for staked, trickle irrigated
is harvested at the maturity stage preferred by tomatoes are estimated at $2,630 per acre, with
the intended market. Vine-ripe tomatoes must harvest and marketing costs for 1,200 boxes at
be harvested as often as twice a week, whereas $6,705 per acre. Total costs are estimated at
mature-green tomatoes are only harvested three approximately $10,200 per acre.
or four times during the season. Pack tomatoes
in the type and size container the market Since returns vary depending on actual yields
requires. and market prices, the following per acre returns
to land and management estimates are based
Labor requirements on three different scenarios. These estimates
Organic systems can be more labor intensive are the returns above a $3,300 cost attributed
than conventional systems. This higher labor for 220 hours of operator labor at $15 per hour.
requirement is most often attributed to the Conservative estimates represent average cost
increased time in weed control and monitoring and return estimates in 2011.
and managing pests. Conventional tomato
production per acre involves approximately 60 Pessimistic Conservative Optimistic
hours for production, 600 hours for harvest, and $(2,210) * $850 $5,450
100 hours for grading and packing. Plasticulture
will add eight to 10 hours more labor per acre, * Parentheses indicate a negative number, i.e. a net loss
mainly for the removal and disposal of the plastic.
Selected Resources
Labor times for small-scale organic tomato Publications
production, such as that for sale at farmers markets, Vegetable Production Guide for Commercial
Growers, ID-36; includes Organic Manures Training Systems and Pruning in Organic
and Fertilizers: Appendix G (pp. 132-133) Tomato Production (eXtension, 2012)
(University of Kentucky)
htm Organizations/Web sites
Field Production of Organic Tomatoes Organic Marketing (Kentucky Department of
(eXtension, 2011) Agriculture)
Organic Tomato Production (ATTRA, 2012) organic/index.htm Economic Research Service (USDA)
Organic Weed Control Toolbox (eXtension, Fruit and Vegetable Terminal Markets
2010) Standard Reports (USDA Agricultural Marketing Service)
Resource Guide to Organic and Sustainable
Vegetable Production (ATTRA, 2012) and-vegetable-terminal-markets-standard- reports
summary.php?pub=19 National Organic Program (USDA-AMS)
Tomatoes: Organic Production in Virginia
(Virginia Association for Biological Farming, Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)

Reviewed by Mark Williams, Associate Professor (Issued 2011)

Photo by Gerald Holmes, Valent USA Corp., courtesy of July 2011
For additional information, contact your local County Extension agent
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