Catastrophic drought conditions in California are denying farmers the rain water needed to grow tomatoes, which is causing the price of items such as ketchup, salsa, and spaghetti sauce to surge.

“We desperately need rain,” Mike Montna, head of the California Tomato Growers Association, told Bloomberg News. 

“We are getting to a point where we don’t have inventory left to keep fulfilling the market demand.”

California, which grows a quarter of the world’s tomatoes, is in the midst of a historic drought that has helped stoke massive wildfires while drying up reservoirs. It also poses a threat to agriculture.

Americans are paying the price at the cashier register as the cost of tomatoes and ketchup are soaring.

According to the recent inflation report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of spices, seasonings, condiments, and sauces rose by 14.2% year-over-year last month — outpacing the 8.5% increase in the consumer price index.

Bruce Rominger on a tomato harvester in his tomato field
California is in the midst of a catastrophic drought that has limited output of tomatoes.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The research firm IRI reported that the price of tomato sauce in the four weeks which ended July 10 is up 17% compared to a year ago during the same period. Ketchup is 23% more expensive, according to the firm.

The inflationary pressures coupled with the climate crisis is making it more difficult for farmers to cope.

“It’s real tough to grow a tomato crop right now,” Montna said.

“On one side you have the drought impacting costs because you don’t have enough water to grow all your acres, and then you have the farm inflation side of it with fuel and fertilizer costs shooting up.”

The consumers are bearing the brunt of the price increase. According to tomato processing giant Ingomar Packing Co, clients are being asked to pay as much as 80% more for tomato paste compared to a year ago.

R. Greg Pruett, the company’s sales and energy manager, said that farmers simply cannot keep up with demand due to the scarcity of water.

Ketchup on grocery store shelves
The price of tomato-based sauces and condiments have surged, outpacing the rate of inflation.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

“There are simply not enough acres of processing tomatoes being planted this year to ensure that everybody gets their full supply,” Pruett told Bloomberg.

“The water is either too expensive or just not available at any cost.”

The situation could reach crisis levels if some of the most popular food items become prohibitively expensive.

“There is obviously a point where that relationship is going to break down if frozen pizzas and pasta sauce and other staple items get priced to the point where the average consumer wants to decide to do something else,” Pruett said.

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