Saving The Great American Tomato Crisis, One Bite At A Time

My fellow Americans, our country is facing a tomato crisis. In the prolonged and unexpected cold snap in early January of this year, 70 percent of Florida’s tomato crop was wiped out, leaving traumatized fruits to rot on the ground beneath shriveled vines.

With a weekly harvest of 25 million pounds of tomatoes, Florida is the largest supplier of fresh tomatoes for American groceries and the food service industry. Within weeks of 2010′s Big Chill, as tomatoes grew ever scarcer, prices jumped. Tomatoes, retailing for $1.36 a pound a year ago, are now commanding prices over $3.00 a pound.

Grocery chains—even in Florida—now rely on Mexican imports (long reported to be the source of 2008′s salmonella outbreak) to supply their produce departments with tomatoes. Wendy’s, the fast food chain, no longer automatically garnishes its burgers with tomato slices: customers have to request them. Fine restaurants have dramatically cut the size of their tomato salads.

The January cold wave, reaching into 48 states, did briefly unite the nation’s fractious body politic into a united (cold) front. However, for the nation’s tomatoes, their consumers and connoisseurs, this was the winter of their discontent.

Tomato lovers still shudder as they recall last summer’s Great Tomato Blight of 2009, when soaking rains, cool temps and overcast skies doomed all garden tomatoes. Mournful tribute was paid to the glories of the tomato, as the Blight became front page headlines, the stuff of TV news segments and op-ed opinionating.

Thus, last summer’s pent-up demand for the savory red fruit has been frustrated by this winter’s southern freeze. Ten months of tasteless tomatoes; “Big Boy” is crying uncle.

Yet the media attention paid to last summer’s crop failure reminded us that the home-grown tomato is not merely a rite of summer, but an inviolable American right of summer, along with cold beer, baseball and convertibles.

My friends, The Great Tomato Crisis represents a great opportunity for all Americans, which I can sum up in three carefully chosen monosyllables: Grow your own.

Raising your own home-grown tomatoes will yield basketfuls of fresh, vine-ripened, ruby-red, firm, succulent, plump, flavorful, fragrant, juicy, nutritious, health-giving, fleshy, jaw-dropping, delicious, epicurean, mouth-filling tomatoes.

Your empire of tomatoes is your private refuge from the notional, vapid and sorry tomatoes on offer in your grocer’s produce department. The economics and logistics of commercial agriculture have conspired to create the retail tomato, a tomato in name only.

This tomato wannabee, bred to be of a size and shape that makes for easy packing and shipping, is prematurely plucked weeks early, to accommodate the coming voyage by truck, where it is bathed in carbon monoxide. Prior to its commercial debut in the produce department, it is gassed with ethylene to help bring out its color. Presto! Blame not the store-bought tomato for its pasty taste, juiceless interior and papery texture. It never stood a chance.

Among the juiciest benefits of growing your own tomatoes—be it in a backyard garden, a patio container or community plot—are the mind-spinning savings you will harvest.

Let’s run the numbers. Mediocre store-bought tomatoes retail for $3.00 a pound. One typical home garden plant produces 40-50 tomatoes in a season, each weighing a pound or so. Reckoned in grocery tomato prices, a single plant produces between $120.00 (a yield of 40) and $150.00 (a yield of 50) worth of tomatoes. A packet of 30 seeds retails for $4.00. On average, 25 of the packet’s 30 seeds grow into robust plants.

Hence, your $4.00 seed packet produces tasty returns ranging from $3,000.00 to $3,750.00—a return on investment of 750-to-1.

The Great American Tomato Garden is open to all of us: foodies, salad savants, nutrition nabobs, culinary connoisseurs, fitness faddists, vitamin votaries, freshness fetishists, flavor freaks and free radical-bashing antioxidantalists. And, lest I forget, we gardeners cordially welcome our nation’s voracious capitalists, hungry for the juiciest profits ever.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 1:06 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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26 Responses to “Saving The Great American Tomato Crisis, One Bite At A Time”

  1. F. Bennett said:

    I read somewhere that “tumbler” provides a fast-paced cherry tomato solution for hanging baskets. as someone with limited sun and creaky back, I wonder if you can provide these seeds. I have not found these seeds or plants in Seattle. Thanks.

    • George said:

      Tumbler is a great tomato, bred in both the UK and US under a combined testing program. Very well adapted to cool, northern climes. You should be able to order it easily here. Thanks for your post.

  2. Vicki Clayton said:

    If you don’t have hours of sun, is there any variety that will work with perhaps 5 hours of sun a day?

    • George said:

      Tomatoes are, as the breeders say, “a function of heat and light”. The sun is very important for initiating flower and fruit set, and then heat becomes very important for later set and all ripening. Thus, the earlier the variety, the better for short, cool or low light areas. Since it grows faster, it will be able to “fit” into your optimal heat/light period, which you have to determine. If you face south, you have some advantage. Also, grow in a set of containers—the soil is warmer and your plant will grow more quickly. Fourth of July is early. All the cherries—large and small—are viable. However, do not expect a huge luscious beefsteak or exotic heirloom in a 5-hour day climate. Like growing large watermelons in the north: it doesn’t happen. Good luck!

  3. Henry Knock said:

    And don’t forget, the squirrels have to eat too.

    • George said:

      Fatten them up, I say, Henry. Squirrels are tasty. Thanks.

  4. M Cole said:

    Great Response to the store bought tomato. Yes, grow your own, and eat seasonly. Put something else in your salad until tomates from the garden are ready.

    • George said:

      Good point, M. I like sweet potato, canned garbanzo beans and onions with oil and vinegar. Thanks for posting.

  5. Becky said:

    Spot on, George! My peas are sprouting, the spinach is up and my guineas are eating all the bugs for me…life is good, for the moment at least. Will soon be putting some tomato plants in the ground to work their magic-can’t wait!

    • George said:

      I wish I had my guinea hens. I miss them so. I loved their funky clucking. And they were really attractive-looking, after you got used to them. The jerkiness became a motif of surprise and their sudden appearances could be ironic. It was like they were much more intelligent than they looked. Anyway, the owls and hawks picked them off, one by one. Thanks very much for posting.

  6. Mary said:

    And that’s no April Fool’s joke….

    • George said:

      Actually, it was. . .April Fool’s!! Ha! Thanks.

  7. cher said:

    Your plan sounds wonderful…..however, what if the blight hits again? Or hungry critters in the garden? I have been growing tomatoes for almost 40 years but never have come close to the number per plant that you write about.

    • George said:

      The blight last year was very strong. Such moulds and fungi, given the right conditions, can wipe out an entire country, as it did Ireland and much of Northern Europe for 3 years in the 1840s. Doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there are few crops that possess the genes to survive. Such is evolution. Your harvest rates should be 40 fruit per warm season for a medium-sized tomato, or what they call in the industry a “large round”, 10-12 oz. fruits. Try a proven hybrid next time, such as Big Boy, Better Boy or SuperTasty.

  8. margaret corbett said:

    No question-home grown tomatoes are sublime. But how to grow them in the Pacific Northwest WITHOUT blight??????
    I start seeds each spring only to have 2/3 of the fruit fail to ripen before balckened with blight.

    • George said:

      My goodness, that is a tough area. You should try the early short harvest types I mentioned above. Also, large plastic containers help enable you to move the tubs to follow the sun on your deck or patio. Northern Exposure as well as Fourth of July would be good.

  9. Mary said:

    In your accounting of costs to grow tomatoes, you forgot to include growing supplies such as manure, straw or mulch (not everyone has stables nearby), stakes and string (or maybe tomato ties and cages which are really expensive), maybe dipel if someone doesn’t want to pick off all the tomato worms. . . . Also, water is expensive for some folks. Don’t get me wrong, I would always rather grow my own tomatoes, but it’s not as cheap as one might think.

    • George said:

      I failed to mention those extra costs only because of my enthusiasm for the hobby. I believe that tomato growing is great fun for most, if not all, gardeners. I know it is for me. So I don’t count the associated costs so much. Plus, store boughts never taste nearly as good. But thanks for the input and please keep posting.

  10. Cindy said:

    I have been watching the planes crisscross the sky over our area, leaving jet trails which do not go away, and which turn into clouds. I think it is Evergreen Corp. A woman came to talk to us about it. They fly all over the world, and have been asked to leave a couple of countries. Has this caused these late springs. They flew over us last spring also, and the squashes didn’t grow right. So, I wonder. Know anything about this? Where did these wet springs come from? Our county agencies told us this was coming 4 years ago. Do they know something we don’t? I am still seeding speedling trays, and it is April, becoming late, for growing seeds here.

    • George said:

      Wet springs are due to warm ocean temperatures from the Pacific, riding on the jet stream (air currents). Sunspots are the main cause of large scale changes in ocean temperatures, so many scientists say. By and large, however, spring hits about the same time each year with the vernal equinox. Not as much variation as people often say, in my experience. Thanks very much for posting.

  11. Michele Draper said:

    Can you please advise me on the type of tomato to plant that does not have so many seeds ?
    Last year, all my tomatoes were full of seeds. However, I canned all of them. They looked awful in the jar because of the “millions” of seeds. I try to pick them out whenever I get ready to cook with them.

    • George said:

      I thought you would never ask! Sweet Seedless in plant form as well. It was last year’s cover tomato. Thanks a lot for posting.

  12. suzanne said:

    I don’t bother buying tomatoes at the grocery. Who wants Florida tomatoes when you can get them from the farmer’s market or grow your own? When they aren’t in season here, I simply do not buy them. I wait until I can get “real” tomatoes… the ones with flavor that haven’t been gassed to get the red color.

    • George said:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree!

  13. Steve McNew said:

    Haven’t bought a tomato since long before the start of the present century – Gobble, dry, can, freeze, and wait, like we would all do better to do. Instant gratification is something we ought not be so grateful, I think… The plants started from suckers in the fall have presented fruits in March, so the wait isn’t all that long!

  14. cynthia hoskins said:

    So new to this whole thing -picked prematurely and ethylene gas to make them red?! Yikes. No wonder they have never tasted like the ones from my childhood garden. I had already decided to grow tomatoes this year, but now I have such momentum!Thx for the illuminating facts.

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