The unbearable sadness of winter tomatoes


Journalist Barry Estabrook has won two James Beard Awards for his writing about food. His newest book, called Tomatoland, is about … er … the tomato. More importantly, it's about what it takes to grow food that can meet full-year, everywhere, low-cost demand and how the changes we've made to agriculture have both helped us and hurt us. You can read an excerpt, about growing tomatoes in Florida, at On Earth magazine. It's a prime example of the kind of trade-offs Estabrook is talking about. To get a glistening red tomato in the depths of winter, you have to grow the fruit in a place and using techniques that pretty much ensure the tomatoes you do get won't taste nearly as good as you want them to.

From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective, you would have to be an idiot to attempt to commercially grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The seemingly insurmountable challenges start with the soil itself. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Although an area south of Miami has limestone gravel as a growing medium, the majority of the state's tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete.

Why bother trying to grow something as temperamental as a tomato in such a hostile environment?

The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We're talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.

Image: Tomatoes at Pike Place, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from maplessinseattle's photostream