There they lie, acre upon acre of shriveled tomatoes. Another victim of the drought? Not on your life.
These are sun-dried tomatoes, which sit for about a week on wooden trays after harvest, then make their way into pasta sauces, salad dressings and other products. They are a tiny slice of the northern San Joaquin Valley’s tomato crop, which mostly goes to canneries, but they have a tang and texture like none other.
“We’re taking the water out, so we’re just intensifying the flavor,” said Willie Traina, president of Traina Foods, the nation’s largest producer. He talked about the business Aug. 13, four weeks into the 11-week tomato season, at his drying yards just north of Patterson.
Traina employs 120 people year-round and adds up to 120 more during seven months of drying that also includes apricots, cherries, pears and several other fruits. His family sells most of its products as ingredients for food companies and to food-service venues.
A few other companies produce sun-dried tomatoes on the west side, including Valley Sun near Newman and Martin Farms near Patterson. Just Tomatoes Etc. near Westley uses dehydrators on numerous dried vegetables and fruits.
The sun-drying of tomatoes goes back to at least 700 A.D., when the Aztecs did it in the plant’s native range in and near Mexico, according to an article on about.com. It adds that Italians later dried them on their ceramic rooftops.
Willie Traina is part of the third generation of a business that started in San Jose in 1926 and moved to Patterson in 1957. It took part in a midcentury boom in the drying industry, which has revived somewhat as people see the nutritional value of the products.
Traina also has dialed into emerging trends: It launched sun-dried tomato ketchup in 2013 and just added a Sriracha version. Coming soon: tomato-flavored vodka, along with three fruit versions.
The company receives about 20,000 tons of tomatoes each year, some from nearby fields and some from a grower in Kings County. It takes about 15 pounds of the fresh product to yield 1 pound of dried.
The tomatoes are the Roma type, which also go to canneries and are valued for their concentrated flavor, high solids content and resistance to mechanical harvesting. They are picked when they are bright red, unlike much of the fresh-market crop.
The west side is seeing some of the worst of the drought, but growers have decided that tomatoes are a good use of what little water they have this year. A record harvest is projected.
Willie Traina pointed out a load of tomatoes that were about to start the drying process. First comes washing, then slicing in half with machinery that has replaced knives wielded by people.
“We cut about 9 pounds of tomatoes every second,” Traina said. “(Hand cutting) took twice as much labor to cut a third as much.”
Hand labor used to be needed as well to assure that all of the tomato halves had their cut side facing up on the tray. Workers now have help from a device called the “cupper upper,” which vibrates the tomatoes into place as they move along conveyors.
Traina has 17 acres of drying space, which can handle as many as 30,000 trays, each 3 feet by 6 feet. They are raised off the ground at a slight angle as they dry for six to eight days, depending on the temperature.
The dried tomatoes then get further inspection by workers and are hauled to the former Patterson Frozen Foods plant, next to downtown. Traina Foods in 2012 bought part of this site, where it freezes the product until it is ready for final processing, including inspection by lasers, metal detectors and X-rays.
Customers can get tomatoes diced, julienned, powdered or marinated in olive oil. Most of them have sulfur added to retain the color and quality, but Traina also has a salt-preserved version.
The old frozen vegetable plant now has solar panels that provide electricity for the dried tomato and fruit operation. In other words, the sun that grows and dries the crops now helps them through the final stages.
“We may be the most energy-efficient food manufacturer in the world,” Willie Traina said.
John Holland: 209-578-2385
About sun-dried tomatoes
Nutrition: The product is a good source of vitamins A and C, iron, magnesium, fiber and other nutrients.
Volume: Sun-dried is a tiny fraction of California’s processing tomato crop, projected at 14.3 million tons this year, but it brings much more income per pound than paste, sauce and other cannery products.
Some local producers
Traina Farms: www.trainafoods.com
Valley Sun: www.valleysun.com
Martin Farms: martinfarms.net
Traina Foods plans an autumn launch of vodkas flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, apricots, strawberries or figs. It will be called Porch Light Vodka in honor of Willie Traina’s grandparents, who used such a light during Prohibition to signal that alcohol enforcers were on the lookout for their homemade hootch. The vodka is made at Indigeny Reserve, which makes apple brandy and hard cider near Sonora.