Waiting for our tomatoes/Tomatoland

grow! grow faster!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Via Boing Boing, I found this excerpt on Onearth Magazine’s website, from a new book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, which is apparently a document of all the indignities suffered by the industrial tomato–the tomato that sits, bright red, useless and flavorless, on store shelves year round, country-wide. Here at the Root Simple compound, we choose to eat tomatoes seasonally–when they’re coming out of our yard–and make do with canned and dried tomatoes for the rest of the year. Basically, we believe that fresh tomatoes are a privilege, not a right. Right now our tomato plants are covered with blossoms and tiny green fruit, and I’m almost frantic for fresh tomatoes. (The basil is in! Where’s the tomatoes?!?) Yet I know better than to buy a tomato at a store. I haven’t for years.

In this excerpt, Estabrook explains why Erik and I avoid store-bought tomatoes like a plague. I haven’t read his book, so can’t comment on the whole, but I liked the excerpt. It focuses on the tomato industry in Florida. Here in California, we’re not often offered Florida tomatoes. Ours seem to come mostly from Mexico at this time of year–and I have no idea how those tomatoes are grown. Are they better than Florida tomatoes, which are coaxed reluctantly from nitrogen-free sand beds, with massive inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

…they must be protected from competitive weeds, disease spores, and especially nematodes, which thrive in Florida. Growers have a ready solution to these problems. They kill everything in the soil. To do so, they fumigate the beds with methyl bromide*, one of the most toxic chemicals in conventional agriculture’s arsenal… The chemical is injected into the newly formed beds, which are immediately sealed beneath a tight wrapper of polyethylene plastic mulch. Then the growers wait while the chemical does its lethal work. Within two weeks, every living organism — every insect, fungus, weed seed, and germ — in the beds is dead. “It’s like chemotherapy,” said Ozores-Hampton. Once the soil is suitably lifeless, it’s time to plant tomatoes.

And methyl bromide is just the start–it’s just soil prep. The tomato growers use a large chemical arsenal to bring their crops to fruition:

U.S. Department of Agriculture studies found traces of thirty-five pesticides on conventionally grown fresh tomatoes: endosulfan, azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, methamidophos, permethrin trans, permethrin cis, fenpropathrin, trifloxystrobin, o-phenylphenol, pieronyl butoxide, acetamprid, pyrimethanil, boscalid, bifenthrin, dicofol p., thiamethoxam, chlorpyrifos, dicloran, flonicamid, pyriproxyfen, omethoate, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, clothianidin, cypermethrin, clothianidin, cypermethrin, fenhexamid, oxamyl, diazinon, buprofezin, cyazofamid, deltamethrin, acephate, and folpet. It is important to note that residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans, but in high enough concentrations, three are known or probable carcinogens, six are neurotoxins, fourteen are endocrine disruptors, and three cause reproductive problems and birth defects.

Yes, it important to note that “residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans” but I dunno…I’d rather skip them altogether, thankyouverymuch.

And is the result of this chemical onslaught a delicious tomato? A “well, it was worth all that methyl bromide” sort of tomato? No, indeed, it is not. All of the resulting tomatoes are picked while green and hard and reddened by application of ethylene gas, eliminating any possibility that they will ever develop flavor. Taste plays no part in the equation. As one of the growers says:

“People just want something red to put in their salad.”

I grew up on flavorless, industrial tomatoes, and as a child, I assiduously picked them off everything I was fed. In retrospect, I don’t blame my young self–they were horrible. Believe it or not,  I didn’t know what a real tomato tasted like until I was 20 or so, not until an aggressive fruit vendor foisted a slice of heirloom tomato on me and I was too polite not to eat it in front of him. The flavor exploded in my mouth. It was–truly–a life changing revelation.

I wonder if more people grew up eating the real thing whether the bottom would fall out of the market for these ghastly Franken-tomatoes? Or are we really satisfied just to have “something red” in our salads?

*Reading the latest scientific literature, Erik has learned that methyl bromide is being phased out of the FL tomato biz, not because of toxicity, but because it generates too much greenhouse gas. (What a charming substance!) There’s no saying it will be replaced by anything less toxic.

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  1. When do you start your tomatoes? I am in Texas and I start inside around New Year and they are ready to go out by early to mid March. First fruit in April.

    I would think you could even grow tomatoes year round where you live because you have even less chance of frost? Heck, I probably could too since I plant in containers and could just bring them in the one day a year it gets cold.

  2. Thanks for that disturbing bit of literature. On a much happier, but still sad note, my tomatoes are only a few inches tall and still not in the ground yet … just a few weeks ago I lost most of them to giant hail. Out of the four heirloom varieties I had planted only the Black Krims survived. What I would give for your little green tomatoes! Fortunately in the instance of such spectacular garden failure, there’s always the farmer’s market.

  3. Having grown up on real tomatoes, won’t touch the commercial things. If I want something red in my salad, I put in red sweet peppers. Maybe that’s why my favorite lettuce are red leaf varieties. As we all wait for the first tomato of the season, last year made some awesome green tomato relish at the end of it. If I had enough of them, I’d make some now and let the plants really go nuts. For some reason, basil is doing poorly. Entire neighborhood upset as I’ve been the source for everone’s basil for a few years now. Usually hugely prolific, but not this year. 🙁

  4. Sara–Where in Texas are you? I was in Houston a few years ago and noticed that the tomato season there was very different (winter, I think?) than the rest of the country.

    I started my tomatoes in March in a cold frame. While, obviously, Los Angeles has a very mild climate, it’s too cold in March for tomato seeds to germinate without a little help. Tomato plants can sometimes survive winters but the quality of the fruit declines each year. Occasional freezes will also knock them back.

  5. IT’s funny I refused to eat tomatoes as a child too, and now I am waiting on my plants to finish growing their tomatoes as mine only have flowers *sighs*. I do know they are grown without pesticides and according to Silver (my partner) I will be surprised by their flavor.

    I do think it’s funny how I didn’t see a point to tomatoes when i was a kid seeing as how to me they had no flavor, so why eat them.

  6. I’ve never really thought too much about why it is that I really hate tomatoes. I pick them out of just about anything, the only time I eat them is in sauces or salsa. As a kid I used to eat tomatoes, I can remember picking warm tomatoes from the garden and eating them like apples. I USED to love tomatoes. I’m guessing I hate them now because since I was 12, I haven’t eaten a tomatoe that wasn’t a red piece of cardboard from the store. I’m trying to perfect my Alaska greenhouse gardening skills to get some fresh tomatoes, it’s been a challenge for me, but maybe someday I’ll figure out if I really like tomatoes.

  7. Thanks for this post, I live in south Florida and I see the large trucks of green tomatoes driving off to the packing plants…I had to repost this on my FB page for all my non-organic tomato eating friends too. Growing tomatoes here can be difficult, my whole first crop failed miserably, but I’m ready to try again after I make some more amendments to my soil and after it cools down some. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve seen reviews of it and its on my wish list!

  8. I grew up on tomatoes from the backyard. I don’t recall ever having a storebought tomato because my parents did not buy them. When it is too cold to germinate, I discovered that the carseat with the little greenhouses sold in the store work in three days to germinate anything. Thanks for the lowdown on toxins. I have found that the only tomatoes worth buying in the winter are grape tomatoes. In the dead of winter they do taste like tomatoes. Maybe I will never buy those again. Thankfully, they are too expensive to buy often.

  9. Oh my heavens. That’s totally revolting. Vile. Disgusting. Appalling.

    I haven’t bought a tomato or even spaghetti sauce since 2001. I can’t see ever going back!

  10. I live in Austin (central Texas). I normally can put my tomatoes outside starting in March and have kept the crop as late as December. The December crop had to be brought in one night with a cold snap. I pull them up once they stop producing tomatoes, usually once the pollinating insects die off. I have never kept them year round… I probably could, but have not put in the effort. I would probably have to pollinate by hand.

    Houston has a lot more humidity… I’m so jealous because citrus just thrives there. I imagine gardeners in Houston, like in Austin could grown into the winter with either container pots that come inside a few nights or with covering ground planted crops on cold nights.

    Is LA really that much colder? I only lived there briefly but it was in the winter months and I remember it being even milder in LA than in Austin. Seems to me you cold start your tomatoes earlier and keep them later, although my experience is with having the flexibility of container tomatoes so YMMV.

  11. I remember eating homegrown tomatoes as a child. Nothing better. It’s a shame the commercial ones are so bland and full of chemicals.So many things lose their appeal when they are mass produced. This summer I had great success with growing my own and am making batches of salsa, spaghetti sauce, and gazpacho, and enjoying sandwiches with big, juicy, flavorful organic tomatoes. What a joy!

  12. I’m in the exact same waiting room for mine to ripen. I have this fat Marianna’s Peace and some huge clusters of Better Boys that I *know* are going to ripen while I’m away on vacation.

    Unlike most people here it seems, I only tasted my first heirloom tomato last year, as a 26 year old. It’s definitely a revolutionary moment, I’ve never liked raw slicing tomatoes. Little did I know how many times I’d been ripped off – I’d rather pay the premium at the store/grow my own than ever eat another bland mass produced sphere of awful.

  13. DH wouldn’t eat tomatoes until I persuaded him to try one I’d grown, and he loved it.

    You may be noticing a theme with DH and vegetables in my posts. He ate very few as a child and was force fed by a lunch supervisor at school (she held his nose closed until he swallowed), which , understandably put him off for years! He now eats pretty much any veg, it’s just that some requires correct presentation…

    DS has just tried to read the list of chemicals and has concluded (aged 10) that you shouldn’t eat things you can’t pronounce. Hear, hear.

  14. Same thing for me. As a child I HATED veggies because the only ones we ate were from a can. Yikes. My own kids are veggie haters, but man do I ever try.

  15. I’ve read about this before, but it still makes me shake my head. And people wonder why I work so hard to grow my own…

  16. I’m 27. The first real tomato I had was two years ago when I moved to a city and found the farmer’s market. I was shocked. My bf and I just bought a house and are awaiting our first crop of home grown tomatos. I’m nervous and excited.

  17. I was fortunate to hear an interview with Barry Estabrook today and it was really an eye opener. I highly recommend reading his book, Tomatoeland.

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