The tomato is the most widely-grown vegetable in the United States. Almost everyone who has a garden has at least one tomato plant. According to the USDA, the United States is second only to China in tomato production. The majority of those tomatoes go to two markets: fresh tomatoes (what we put on a salad) and processed tomatoes (what we use to top pizza, pasta, nachos, and french fries). Tomato plants are typically grown specifically for one of the two markets. Processing tomatoes usually contain a higher percentage of soluble solids to produce the best consistency for sauces and pastes. Tomatoes bound for processing generally have a thicker skin and firmer consistency. These qualities decrease the chances of damage to the vegetable during harvesting and transportation.
California farms produce a large percentage of processed-tomato plants. The Midwest—Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan—makes up most of the remaining tomato production headed for processing. Typically, growers contract with processors to process ripe tomatoes. These processors, in turn, use the tomatoes to produce canned tomatoes and tomato paste, the building block for many soups, ketchups, and sauces. In 2014, Indiana grew 15.2 million pounds of fresh-market tomatoes, valued at roughly $7.4 million, and grew 344,100 tons of tomatoes for processing, valued at $39.2 million. These stats were taken from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), which runs a user-friendly website that allows you to sort data by year, state, crop, unit of measurement, and more. Check it out at http://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/.
According to the USDA NASS, U.S. fresh market tomato production totaled roughly $1.135 billion in 2014. Approximately 97,600 acres were harvested. About 306,100 acres of tomatoes destined for processing were harvested in that same timeframe. Processing tomato production in 2014 approached $1.325 billion. The number of acres planted with fresh tomato plants has been trending down since 1998, while the acreage of processed tomatoes planted has been slowly growing. The value of processed tomato production has risen from $604,905 in 1998 to its 2014 level of $1,325,332,000. The value of fresh tomato production as a country has risen as well, but more slightly, from $1,040,382,000 in 1998 to $1,134,616,000 in 2014.
Exports are an important component of the U.S. tomato-processing industry. During the 1990s, the United States became a net exporter of processed tomato products. Americans consume 75% of their tomatoes in processed form. U.S. consumption of processed tomatoes began a steady climb that accelerated in the late 1980s with the rising popularity of pizza, pasta, and salsa.
Processing tomatoes are picked fresh and then heat-treated for use in tomato products, including tomato paste, diced and whole canned tomatoes, tomato sauces, tomato juice, tomato soup, salsas, and ketchup. As with home canning and pickling, the heat treatment ensures the safety of the food. Salmonella and other food-borne pathogens typically cannot survive the high heat used to process tomatoes. Incidentally, the high heat process also improves the flavor of the tomatoes and may increase the level of lycopene, an antioxidant naturally found in tomatoes.
In short, as producers look to feed a growing global population, the processed tomato’s nutritional value, safety, and economic worth make it an attractive option to growers, processors, and consumers. The Midwest is poised to make significant contributions to this growing field in the next few years.