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COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE

UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND ENVIRONMENT
Center for Crop Diversification Crop Profile

Organic Tomatoes
Cheryl Kaiser1 and Matt Ernst2
Introduction
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
1
Cheryl Kaiser is a former Extension Associate with the Center for Crop Diversification.
2
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

green manure conventional produce in their region. tobacco. Soil fertility can be enhanced by differences in pricing between organic and properly aged animal manure. often critical for profitable organic production. Selecting a site that is well. 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. was plowed under the previous fall. operations. However. certified organic crops (e. fast growing plants with resistance and/or tolerance to as many can better tolerate or outgrow pest problems.g. prevailing diseases and insects as possible. nitrogen-fixing legumes information to new organic consumers about (e. Tomatoes do well produce. fields that are subject to late frosts should be avoided. 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. especially when offered neighboring conventional fields. pepper. fishmeal. Fields should be for early.g. Choose a site for tomato production with well. Supplemental organic nutrient education resources for producers may be sources include bloodmeal. and soybean meal. to the harvested portion of the crop. it can come from conventional farming USDA Agricultural Marketing Service website. Daily (cover crops turned under prior to planting). However. compost and composted manure must meet Higher prices for certified organic produce are specific processing requirements. rye) will Producers may choose to offer point-of-purchase increase organic matter.g. organic production. by the myriad of horticultural characteristics . Even rotated out of tomatoes and related solanaceous at wholesale price levels. potassium. and Vegetable Marketing News page of the that is. but it is especially important in organic production. meal.g. Healthy. so low-lying grow the organic tomato category. it is vital to identify selections organic production. 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. With fewer pest management suited to the crop is especially important in options available. hairy vetch) have the additional benefit the costs of organic certification and potentially of providing nitrogen. wholesale price reports for terminal markets and approved natural fertilizers. Site selection and preparation Only land that has been free of prohibited Cultivar selection and transplant production substances (e. synthetic pesticides and artificial Cultivar selection is a critical decision for any fertilizers) for three years can be certified for commercial crop. Locate tomato fields where plants Organically grown tomatoes can command will not be damaged by herbicide drift from premium prices. In addition. Tomato varietal selection is further complicated drained soil that warms up quickly in the spring. cottonseed available through the Organic Trade Association. Some consumer production.and late-season availability. Producers should develop a detailed marketing Healthy soil is the key to successful organic plan for certified organic produce and understand production. Production Considerations and calcium in balanced proportions. Tomatoes require moderate to high levels of phosphorus. While cover crops of grasses (e. these premiums may vary when transplanted to a field where fescue sod considerably between market areas.organic greenhouse tomato production has helped Tomatoes are quite cold-sensitive. There are no around the country can be accessed on the Fruit restrictions regarding the source of manure.

The use of organic mulch has the further advantage of improving the soil by adding Stocky.g. yellow. striped). Mulching materials can include natural earliness (early-. and intended use (canning. The in the heat of summer. 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. straw or wood chips) or allowable factors that can dictate varietal selection for synthetic materials (e. per acre. The or a trellis system. 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. however. While support systems earliest and latest safe planting dates for tomatoes require additional material and labor. globe). as excessive trays where plants are tightly spaced. Planting and crop management Tomato plants grown organically should be Transplanting is done after the last killing frost supported and trained using cages. organic mulch higher prices generally commanded by early will also keep soils cooler in the spring.g. acid content. which can include heirloom removed at the end of the harvest season. slicing. mulches a hybrid. 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. although some grow transplants for needed to reduce vegetative growth and encourage their earliest crops in larger cells. Tomatoes will fruit development. Many growers produce transplants in 72 or 128 Sucker removal (pruning) should be done as cell trays. oval. Tomatoes may be open-pollinated or germination near plants. pruning can reduce yields and fruit quality. flavor. newspaper). paste. which tomatoes usually more than offsets the higher could delay early season growth. the vary according to the region of Kentucky. Fruit may differ in size (cherry-size growers use approximately 4. Black plastic organic seed and organic transplant production may also enhance earliness by warming soils in the spring. during the growing season. However. mid-. 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.000 plants to one pound or more in weight). Other materials (e. and late-season). salad. moderate soil temperatures.200 to 5. can be treated with any prohibited substances. It is important to strike a good tend to get “leggy” if produced in smaller cell balance between fruit and foliage.available. Most benefits generally outweigh the costs in . for a spring crop and in July for a fall crop. shape (pear. The moisture levels under the plastic methods. cost of good quality container-grown plants. container-grown transplants are most organic matter back into the soil as it decays. color (pink. red. Neither seed nor transplants moisture can also lead to blossom end rot. stakes. red-black. and prevent weed drying). Adaptability to local conditions and suitability to intended production practices must University of Kentucky on-farm demonstrations also be considered. The use of mulch will help preserve soil moisture. fluctuations in soil different sources. cultivars. desirable for transplanting as they will result in Organic mulches also tend to keep soils cooler higher early yields than bare-root plants. Plastic fresh markets is consumer demand and regional mulch is permitted in organic production if it is preferences. Cultivars may also differ in soil. such as synthetic fungicides. blocky. In addition. as well as reduce fruit contact with the production season). orange.

thus. Once plants have reached a Following good cultural practices. Support Tomatoes are subject to a large number of systems. less post-harvest fruit diseases and pests requires accurate identification. wooden stakes cannot be treated with locally prevalent diseases is essential to effective arsenate or other prohibited materials. posting “no spray” signs. and cooperating with neighboring Potential insect pests include aphids. Growers with split flea beetles. weeds compete with plants for water maintaining well-balanced fertility. sites with perennial emphasizes prevention through good production noxious weeds that have historically been difficult and cultural methods. southern are easier to harvest. are under control prior to planting. A list of approved products certification status. monitoring in improved fruit quality. Weed management begins with yields. The planned crop the complete elimination of pest problems.g.. and sulfur will injure plant foliage at substances can compromise the farm’s organic high temperatures. insecticidal soap and Bt). conventional farmers. approved insecticides (such as commingling of their two systems. be a problem during cooler growing seasons. Pest management in organic systems careful site selection.organic production. altering drainage patterns. early blight. transplanting. along with pruning. Preventative strategies can be found on the Organic Materials Review include the use of buffer zones and barriers. with plant compete with weedy vegetation. and Verticillium wilt. and increased yields when compared to unsupported plants (sprawl culture). Growing varieties with multiple resistances to however. operations must take steps to prevent the Trap crops. and stinkbugs. Late blight can be in place two to three weeks after transplanting. mites. can go and reduce air circulation. 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. Frequent scouting is essential to can be used to suppress weed development within . 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. Institute (OMRI) Web site. Supporting plants results keeping ahead of potential problems. Plastic or organic mulches reduce yields. unchecked. Septoria leaf spot. thus fewer foliar canker. and trellising). bacterial air circulation through plants. rather to manage insects and diseases to keep should be directed at making sure existing weeds crop damage within acceptable economic levels. but rotation program. result in improved diseases. The support system should blight. soil moisture. and beneficial insects can help organic growers manage insect pests. disease management in organic systems. cutworms. which includes anthracnose. managing and nutrients. if left spacing. supported plants root knot nematode. Additionally. rotating crops. disease problems. harbor insect and disease pests. 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. as well as site preparation. Stakes or posts can be made of metal or wood. pruning. Fusarium wilt. they should not be applied routinely. such as height of 12 to 15 inches they are better able to maximizing air circulation (e. decay. Pest management Organic tomato production can be very Since herbicides cannot be used. The drift and run-off of prohibited organisms. Excessive as well as from non-organic fields in split copper can be damaging to certain beneficial soil operations. However. fruitworms. Weeds should not be a long way in preventing problems that would allowed to go to seed. and practicing sanitation. bacterial spot. The goal is not necessarily to control should be avoided.

based on yield and price. Growers with split operations must in certified organic tomato production. Pack tomatoes in the type and size container the market Since returns vary depending on actual yields requires. handled as carefully as possible in all picking.210) * $850 $5. • Vegetable Production Guide for Commercial . the the three-year minimum transition period. Fruit Production costs for staked. whereas $6. total must be followed before use in the organic end production costs (including fixed costs of land of the enterprise.rows. and hauling operations.e. This higher labor for 220 hours of operator labor at $15 per hour. These estimates Organic systems can be more labor intensive are the returns above a $3. For tomato production in between rows. or four times during the season. Total costs are estimated at mature-green tomatoes are only harvested three approximately $10. Vine-ripe tomatoes must harvest and marketing costs for 1. Packaging materials must be and organic certification) are estimated at $220 protected against potential contamination from for a 100-foot by 4-foot bed. and managing pests. and $(2. packing. the transition period cannot be marketed as organic. Selected Resources Labor times for small-scale organic tomato Publications production. Plasticulture will add eight to 10 hours more labor per acre. Returns will vary prohibited substances. * Parentheses indicate a negative number. including Initial investments include land preparation. and the purchase marketed and sold as certified organic or organic. grading. such as that for sale at farmers markets. a net loss mainly for the removal and disposal of the plastic. and market prices.630 per acre. requirement is most often attributed to the Conservative estimates represent average cost increased time in weed control and monitoring and return estimates in 2011. shallow tillage. can be purchase of seed or transplants. Additional start-up costs can include the installation of Harvesting operations. with the intended market. while mowing. storage areas.705 per acre. either use separate equipment and facilities for these operations or decontamination protocol For small-scale organic tomato production. of stakes or other training system. trickle irrigated is harvested at the maturity stage preferred by tomatoes are estimated at $2. this bed could Tomato fruit is easily damaged and should be return as much as $680 above total costs. Conventional tomato production per acre involves approximately 60 Pessimistic Conservative Optimistic hours for production. the following per acre returns to land and management estimates are based Labor requirements on three different scenarios. 600 hours for harvest. packaging materials must comply with NOP Organic certification costs will also be incurred standards. and an irrigation system and black plastic mulch. i. 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.450 100 hours for grading and packing.200 per acre. Assuming yields of 400 pounds sold at $2 per pound.300 cost attributed than conventional systems. a 100-foot x 4-foot bed.200 boxes at be harvested as often as twice a week. and living can also vary according to specific production mulches are techniques for managing weeds systems and practices. Only those crops that have met NOP Economic Considerations production and certification standards.

• Fruit and Vegetable Terminal Markets 2010) Standard Reports (USDA Agricultural http://www. disability. • Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) 2006) http://www.gov/nop (Virginia Association for Biological Farming. age.Growers.ncat.ers. . 132-133) Tomato Production (eXtension. Valent USA Corp.extension.files. courtesy of Bugwood.php?pub=33 http://www.com/2012/03/ tomatoes. ID-36.extension.usda.uky.omri.gov/market-news/fruit- Vegetable Production (ATTRA.wordpress.org/ http://vabf.org/attra-pub/summaries/ • Economic Research Service (USDA) summary.php?pub=19 • National Organic Program (USDA-AMS) • Tomatoes: Organic Production in Virginia http://www. color.extension.com/marketing/plantmktg/ • Organic Tomato Production (ATTRA. religion..usda.ams.ams.edu/agc/pubs/id/id36/id36. Associate Professor (Issued 2011) Photo by Gerald Holmes.org/article/18647 http://www. contact your local County Extension agent Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race.gov/Briefing/Organic/ • Organic Weed Control Toolbox (eXtension.ca.htm https://attra.org/article/18653 http://www.kyagr.org July 2011 For additional information. or national origin. sex.pdf Reviewed by Mark Williams.usda. 2011) Agriculture) http://www. 2012) and-vegetable-terminal-markets-standard- https://attra. htm Organizations/Web sites • Field Production of Organic Tomatoes • Organic Marketing (Kentucky Department of (eXtension. 2012) organic/index.org/article/18532 Marketing Service) • Resource Guide to Organic and Sustainable http://www.org/attra-pub/summaries/ reports summary.ncat. includes Organic Manures • Training Systems and Pruning in Organic and Fertilizers: Appendix G (pp. 2012) (University of Kentucky) http://www.