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Italy: the 2023 season (almost) at the point of taking stock

26/09/2023 - François-Xavier Branthôme - 2023 Season - Lire en français
Processing tomatoes: "Damage caused by bad weather and Chinese dumping are endangering a key sector."

"The data published by the Anicav, which estimates the 2023 tomato harvest at 5.6 million tonnes, clearly looks good on paper, even if I fear it may be over-optimistic, at least for the northern region of Italy. Indeed, the consequences of the latest heavy hailstorms that hit our territory have considerably reduced the surface areas to be harvested and the resulting yields." These were the words of Alessandro Squeri, Managing Director of Steriltom, a Gragnano-based company active in the production of tomato pulp and pastes throughout Europe, as reported in the Italian press in early August. 
 "This is particularly true in Romagna, where the considerable damage caused by floods in May has been compounded by five hail storms. We're all counting on the skill and experience of our growers, who can at least salvage what can be saved, even if in some situations there's not much left to do." Mr. Squeri added: "The campaign in northern Italy is in jeopardy, and I fear that losses may exceed 15% of initial estimates, with peaks of 30% in some regions."

He continued by stating that "In addition to the already serious damage caused by bad weather, there is the threat of foreign competition, particularly from China, which is exporting tomato paste to Europe at unaffordable prices. European production, and Italian production in particular, has always stood out for the sustainability and safety that it offers end consumers. Of course, products from certain non-European countries cost less to buy, but at the price of worrying levels of pesticides and environmental damage, in addition to a lack of traceability and controls throughout the production chain, etc. Not to mention ethical issues such as respect for local populations and forced labor in the fields, which in some cases has even been admitted by the UN."

"It's obvious," continued Squeri, "that when faced with dumping from these countries, the industry alone does not have sufficient means to combat this practice. Intervention at the European level would be necessary, which we hope will re-establish greater protection of the internal markets and stricter rules for imports from third-party countries, particularly in terms of ethics and sustainability, as the United States and England have recently done, for example."

Squeri pointed out that "as for Steriltom, despite the obvious difficulties, the company has set about guaranteeing the quantities reserved for its historic customers, in collaboration with over 200 growers and 700 employees, thanks to whom, in 2022, over 420,000 tonnes of tomatoes were processed for a turnover of EUR 155 million. We hope to meet and exceed these estimates during the 2023 season as well," he concluded.

Veneto: hot August weather improves conditions
A few days earlier, at the end of August, press reports in the Verona region stated that rain and hail during the summer of 2023 in the Veneto region have had adverse effects on the crops of processing tomatoes, even though the hot weather of August had improved the situation by limiting production losses.

However, the higher prices paid to growers this year under the terms of the agreement signed with processors last May, amounting to EUR 150 per tonne, should compensate for the shortfall, even if definitive results will have to wait until the end of the season in mid-September. 
"This year's season got off to a bad start, as it rained heavily and some crops were damaged by hail," said Marco Giavoni of Confagricoltura Verona's "processed tomato products" department, himself a grower in Nogarole Rocca in the Veneto province. 
"Fortunately, the warmth of August and the dry weeks enabled the soil to recover and be in optimum condition for harvesting. Quantity is a little short, but quality is good, with very little waste or green tomatoes. Farms hit by the storms have reported significant losses, but others are reporting excellent harvests. On a personal note, my crops were affected by two rainstorms and a downpour of hail. Losses amount to around 20%. But now we have to get used to working in a tropical country, with lots of heat and frequent heavy rain. A situation that tomatoes don't like, as they prefer warm, dry conditions."

This year, demand from the industry is high, not least because of the shortage of raw materials on the market following the floods in Romagna. For its part, the Verona region is investing heavily in this crop: according to data published by Veneto Agricoltura 2022, Verona has confirmed its leadership in the Veneto region with around 1,100 hectares of the 1,760 cultivated in the area (up by 14%), followed by Rovigo (370 hectares, down 26%) and Venice (200 hectares, up 25%).
"Tomatoes are a difficult crop to grow, because they're very expensive, but they're satisfying," confirms Marco Giavoni. "Currently, we are in a time when it's hard to know what crops to grow, so many people start out with processing tomatoes in the hope of good results. In contrast to the grain sector, where prices from corn to barley have collapsed, processing tomato growers are paid EUR 150 per tonne. This is a significant increase on last year's prices, even if rising production costs – energy, fertilizers, pesticides and packaging – prevent us from making a significant profit margin."

Basilicata: the harvest is progressing rapidly
In Basilicata, an area highly specialized in the cultivation of processing tomatoes, the season began at the beginning of August. By the beginning of week 37, over 50% of the crop had already been harvested.
Agronomist Mario Cardone provided an initial assessment of production in a season in which climate change has led to a number of problems. "It hasn't rained since the beginning of July, so harvesting, carried out in most cases with mechanical harvesters, is progressing rapidly, since they work best in dry conditions.The climate is therefore ideal for fruit ripening. The weather is still hot and the product is of optimum quality. We expect the harvest to finish mid-October, about a fortnight later than in 2022."

 The season got off to a bumpy start right from the transplanting stage: frequent rains in April, May and June lengthened the transplanting period, and also had repercussions on production. "There's no continuity to the harvest," explained the agronomist. "Periods of product shortage alternate with moments of abundance. Yields per hectare are not very high: we have been recording averages of around 90 tonnes/hectare. The surface areas planted with tomatoes for processing in Basilicata show an increase of 5 to 10% on last year, but the drop in yields seems to be jeopardizing the overall increase in production."

With this abnormal weather, there is no shortage of plant-health issues, starting with the spread of mildew and continuing with Alternaria and bacteriosis. "July's scorching temperatures compromised fruit set, reducing the number of fruits on the plants and increasing the percentage of attacks by red spider mites and tomato russet mites. Although some production costs were down on the previous season, expenses per hectare remained high, mainly due to the increase in plant-health inputs. However, prices have remained stable since the start of the harvest."

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