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Argentina: good start to the season, with a target of 630,000 tonnes

10/03/2022 - François-Xavier Branthôme - 2022 Season - Lire en français
The cultivation of processing tomatoes has been developing for several years in Argentina, in order to satisfy national demand. Argentinean companies expect a production of about 630,000 tonnes in 2022.

According to local sources, Argentina's processing tomato industry has now got its 2022 harvest well underway, with good chances of consolidating last year's result. For the region of Mendoza, the surface area planted with processing tomatoes this year covers 3,595 hectares, a level very close to the 3,598 ha recorded in 2021. So harvest forecasts are similar to the record crop of 2021, which amounted to over 243,000 metric tonnes (mT).
The cultivation of processing tomatoes has been actively developed in recent years in order to satisfy the significant domestic demand, which currently requires the import of tomato pastes in addition to the 600,000 mT processed by the country's factories.

Agronomists at the INTA La Consulta Agricultural Experimental Station, where much of the research is concentrated, estimate that about 3,595 hectares were planted this year in the province and emphasize the importance of the neighboring regions of San Juan and Mendoza, which together account for about 80% of total Argentinean activity in the sector. Mendoza factories usually start the season in late January or early February with tomatoes from regions such as Fray Luis Beltrán. Then in February, they source from local crops, while in the Uco Valley, further south, the season starts around March and in some regions lasts until May.

 The agricultural engineer Cosme Argerich, researcher member of INTA La Consulta and technical advisor of the Tomato 2000 association, said he was satisfied with the beginning of the season. "At the moment, there is a little more tomato volume than in 2021, but this can change from one week to the next due to weather issues. We hope that the harvest will be similar to last year, around 250,000 tonnes in Mendoza," explained Argerich.
According to the agronomist, there were some production difficulties in San Juan linked to the lack of water and strong winds, impacting about 5% of the crop. Regarding the region of Mendoza, some rains in recent months have led growers to increase treatment operations against fungal diseases in the Uco Valley.

Gustavo Cialone, Director of the company Agroindustrias Cialpil and president of the Tomato 2000 Association, has estimated that the season, "despite the climatic events that occurred, is within normal parameters", and that the slight decrease in production in San Juan could be compensated by an improved performance on some farms in the Mendoza region. "For us, tomatoes are Cuyo [provinces of San Juan, San Luis and Mendoza, ed.]. We all work with growers from both places. We hope to harvest a volume similar to that of 2021," commented the processor.

Considering the volumes of last year and this year, the president of Tomate 2000 believes that the Argentinean sector is gradually approaching self-sufficiency, although attaining this goal will depend on each company and the contracts concluded, which include financing for growers, a practice that differentiates this sector from other crops. In these contracts, a price is also fixed in advance. During both this season and the last one, it was around USD 90 /mT.

On the other hand, a small portion of the crushed tomato sector is still experiencing difficulties with its supplies of glass packaging. "In March, it is estimated that packaging deliveries will be a little higher. Currently, I'm getting enough for a day's work every week. We're doing what we can, with alternative packaging or repurposing tomatoes to make pastes," Cialone said.

For Oscar Alba, a grower who started growing tomatoes for the industry ten years ago but is not a member of Tomato 2000, "the price set based on the official exchange rate with the dollar (USD 90) has a positive and a negative side. The positive side is that it allows you to estimate in advance how much money will be received for the product. The negative side is that in one year, the official dollar exchange rate increased by 20% (from 86.5 ARS/USD in February 2021 to 104.5 ARS/USD in 2022) while inflation was about 50%, so the profitability for the grower is less.

"I think the price for this season should have been higher, at least USD 100 /mT," in order to take into account the exchange effects on the value of agricultural inputs, comments Oscar Alba. The tomato grower intends to continue growing the crop, but if prices or the ARS/USD exchange rate do not improve in 2022, he will consider whether to continue or abandon the business. For the time being, he notes that each year, it is necessary to obtain a little more tomato on each hectare of land. "In the past, reaching 70 tonnes per hectare was a good performance, then it took 80 tonnes, and today you can't have less than 90-100 tonnes per hectare to make it profitable." Reaching these yields implies a greater investment in terms of fertilizer and work for crop management.
Speaking about improving productivity, Cosme Argerich said that drip irrigation tests carried out on farms in the Uco Valley have shown very good results. "The problem in Mendoza is the lack of drip irrigation, because gravitational irrigation causes water stress between irrigation episodes, and this lowers yields," explained the INTA La Consulta researcher. The demonstration plots, monitored by the Tomato 2000 association and under furrow or gravitational irrigation, showed very low yields, in the range of 50 to 60 mT/ha. With drip irrigation, these plots should produce close to 100 tonnes per hectare. "This shows that Mendoza is as competitive as San Juan."

In a region where it is difficult to mobilize labor due to competition with other crops such as grapes, the processing tomato industry has also made progress in mechanical harvesting, although the price of a tomato harvester is much higher (about USD 400,000) than equipment for other crops (USD 45,000 for a garlic harvester). In this context, harvesting machines are often owned by processing plants, or groups of producers, who rent them at harvest time.
According to Gustavo Cialone, director of Agroindustrias Cialpil and president of the Tomato 2000 association, stakeholders in the Mendoza region are showing great interest in this solution: "In the province, it is the only option left. There are no hands available for manual harvesting. I would even say that we need twice as many harvesters as we have today to reach an optimal operating level."

This year, the sector has added at least six harvesting machines in the region, and a company in San Juan has dedicated its activity to providing machines for a fixed period of time. The rent, charged per tonne harvested, represents a cost similar to that of manual harvesting. The advantage of this solution is not so much economic but is to be found in the speed of harvesting and the better quality of the product delivered to the factory, since it removes plant-matter as well as stones.

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