I have a small greenhouse and grow my own tomatoes in the summertime. This time of year, it is impossible to find a good tomato. What is up with the winter tomato and why is it so bland?
- Joey, Denver
Tomatoes are possibly the most beloved of all fruits. I love my tomato garden but I haven't always loved tomatoes. I spent nearly 30 years picking tomatoes off my sandwiches and salads. To me, tomatoes from the supermarket tasted like cardboard. They were uniformed in shape, color, taste and texture. I simply refused to eat them.
Everything changed after a trip to a greenhouse. It was the first time I'd seen a variety of tomatoes. Each plant presented a different size and smell. There were small yellow tomatoes, elongated black velvet tomatoes, fat purple tomatoes and tomatoes with names like black beauty and northern lights. After one taste, I was addicted. How could I have misjudged the tomato all of these years?
The lifecycle of a homegrown tomato is pretty straightforward - seed to plant to fruit to plate. However, the story of the industrialized "winter" tomato is anything but homegrown and sweet. According to Barry Estabrook, author of "Tomatoland," most store tomatoes available between November and May are grown in Florida. It seems ridiculous that so much energy is given to winter tomatoes, a fruit that is notorious for sensitivities to frost and cold nights. However, the demand for tomatoes year-round continues to fuel the industry.
Florida is the only region in the United States that happens to avoid winter-like conditions in January. At the same time, Florida is about as opposite as you can get for the concept of what master gardeners call "right place, right plant."
Ancestors of the tomato we know today actually originated in the dry, coastal deserts of the Andes. This seems to be the starting point of how backwards the tomato industry is and how seasonality no longer has meaning.
Estabrook's description of Florida's geography when it comes to the tomato can be summed up in three words: humidity, weeds and sand. Because Florida rarely sees frost or temperatures below 32 degrees, there is an infestation of pests, fungi and nematodes constantly threatening vulnerable crops like tomatoes. In fact, tomato diseases including blight and mold thrive in Florida's warm, damp climate. In addition, super weeds have ample time to strengthen their roots with little competition from the cold.
To eliminate these threats, tomato growers cover raised beds with impermeable plastic and fumigate the soils with strong chemicals such as methyl bromide. These pesticides are extremely toxic to people and the environment. In fact, Estabrook determined that Florida applies more than eight times the amount of chemicals (more than 110 different types) as tomato farmers in California. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens that are outlawed in other countries.
Florida also lacks topsoil. Most of Florida's "soil" is sand. Since tomato growers use pesticides to kill off everything in the soil including good and bad microorganisms, the soil is lifeless. Growers inject enormous amounts of synthetic fertilizers to try and replenish what they've destroyed. These chemicals are most often added in surplus (a "better safe than sorry" attitude) contributing to pollution and surface run-off.
As you continue down the life cycle of the industrialized tomato, you learn that workers harvest the tomatoes when they are green. This is completely contradictory to my vivid memories of picking bright red tomatoes fresh from the garden. Industrialized tomatoes are harvested prematurely as hard, green fruits so they better survive the long and rocky journey from the plantation to the store. At the processing plant, perfectly round, green tomatoes are sterilized with chlorine; gassed with ethylene to ripen; and then shipped in refrigerated trucks to stores across the nation so consumers can purchase a red tomato in January.
The most fundamental part of this story is the human factor. Workers are an integral piece to the success of the industry and how the tomato makes it to the shopping cart. Yet, workers (the lifeblood of the farm) have endured chemical exposure, low wages and slavery. Estabrook reported several cases of infant mortality and babies born with physical deformities due to their parents' contact with lethal pesticides. In the last 15 years, Florida's tomato industry has been found guilty of seven major slavery cases involving 1,200 people. To keep store prices cheap, workers are paid per basket of harvested tomatoes and are not guaranteed hourly wages or benefits.
The tomato label says nothing about how it is grown or the social and environmental costs associated with growing it. A label may state its state or country of origin, but does nothing to remind people that a tomato grown in January goes against nature to produce something completely out of season. It also fails to mention how many miles it has traveled; how long since it was picked green from the vine; or the story behind the fingers that picked it.
The label doesn't tell you that the winter tomato is less nutritious than a backyard tomato. That the artificial soils used to grow the tomatoes contribute to reduced amounts of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. These stories never make it to the supermarket, to the consumer or to the kitchen table.
A backyard tomato and all of its glory (taste, color, individuality) may cost you valuable time, but its social and environmental savings add value to your health and your community. Until the true story of your next tomato is revealed, consider purchasing a boatload of fresh, local tomatoes in the summertime. Your taste buds and karma will be rewarded.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.