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.