I’ve been known to slice up a tomato from my garden or the market, sprinkle with sugar, and eat them like the fruit they are (botanically speaking). Or, I might splash them with a little olive oil and balsamic, tear up a gob of mozzarella cheese, and maybe some basil if the garden is cooperating (that is, not sending the basil bolting into spikes of seed heads). Or if I have quite a quantity and fear that they’ll break down before we can finish them, I’ll toss them in the blender with a little vinegar and seasonings, and call it gazpacho. However you slice it, though, the local tomato is revered around my house.
Why is it that these tomatoes taste so completely different from the tomatoes at the grocery store? Even the ones sold as “vine-ripened” still don’t taste anything like these “real” tomatoes that come from a nearby garden or farm.
Well, you might be surprised to learn that they’re not really the same tomatoes at all. The dozens upon dozens of varieties of tomato plants grown in the U.S. commercially (commercially for eating fresh, that is, as opposed to processing) are all hybrids, selected and bred for the qualities that the commercial growers prize, such as yield and size and hardiness for transport, and meant to grow in that particular zone and soil. The varieties you have in your garden and at your farmer’s market may include some hybrids, but their proximity to the point of sale (you!) means they can also include heirloom (non-hybrid) varieties that have been handed down generation after generation, bred and maintained for flavor, rather than transport.
Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa is a non-profit dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. You can order seeds from their website or catalog, just like from other seed companies, but it’s a small portion of all that they have saved and have available to their members. They have a charitable mission: to preserve, research, and share heirloom vegetable and plant seeds.
Did you know that you can save seeds from heirloom varieties of tomatoes (and many other vegetables), and plant those seeds in the spring? Starting plants from seed adds a fair bit of work to your garden planting process, but when you find a variety you treasure, you’ll appreciate being able to replant each year without buying more seed. Look for a post later this summer on how to harvest and save tomato and other seeds!
Back to those tomatoes.
Depending on where in the U.S. that you live, you could theoretically find “local” tomatoes any month of the year. Tomatoes are grown in California and Florida nearly year-round (taking a break only when the upper half of the country can grow their own). If you add in the hydroponic/greenhouse/factory production, you could literally find a “local” tomato anywhere, at any time. But this kind of “local” isn’t quite what we’re talking about here at Legit Local.
The small town in Michigan where I grew up is now producing tomatoes year-round in greenhouse complexes that are stunningly futuristic-looking. But, to quote my young nephew, “these are NOT aunt stephie’s tomatoes.”
(count the number of times they say “local” in that article above, by the way).
For starters, the company is not local to Michigan, or even the U.S.: they’re based in Canada, with greenhouses all over North America. While they’re providing local jobs and adding to the property tax base, they’re not a local business. The profits go to Canada, not back to the community. Corporate has no relationship with the land (since they’re not actually farming on it), and no reason to make their operation sustainable. If things don’t work out — if the labor force dries up, the taxes increase, the cost of treating the water increases — they simply pick up and move to another small town eager for a large employer to take on land that’s sitting idle.
More than that, the varieties are still being selected and grown for optimal transport and presentation in the supermarket, and flavor is sacrificed. I’ve tried these tomatoes, and honestly I don’t taste any difference between them and the other supermarket varieties of cherry tomato.
Farmscape, an LA-area urban farm group, recently measured the sugar content of various local (to them) and commercially-grown tomatoes. Using a refractometer, a small kaleidoscope-looking device (if you’re a beer brewer, you may have one of these in your kit; give it a try!), they found sugar content in the farmer’s market and garden tomatoes much higher than those in the grocery store: 5.0 – 9.0 Brix units, as opposed to 4.0, respectively. See this video for more info on sugar content. Or this piece from Scientific American on the science of delicious tomatoes.
True, farmer’s market tomatoes look like they’re more expensive than those in the grocery store. Around here, grocery store prices for tomatoes are around $1.50-$2.00/lb, where you’re likely to pay $3-4/lb from a local grower. But first, consider whether those grocery store tomatoes are certified organic. My local grocery is selling organic campari tomatoes for $2.69-$4/lb, so right away the gap between those prices shrinks to very little. Then, if you’re planning on doing any canning or sauce-making with your tomatoes, farmers will often sell you a box of “seconds,” the ones that don’t look quite as nice, or might have a bruise or other spot that you need to cut out, for a lower price per pound. On balance, it’s not that much of a difference in price — but a world of difference in flavor and in the value of knowing who’s growing your food.
Research on tomato varieties
Seed Savers’ Exchange – keeping heirloom varieties going for generations
Heirloom vs. (not) – what’s it all about?
Growing your own
Saving your own seed – heirloom-only
But what about the TASTE?
Types of tomatoes: Slicing or paste; determinate or indeterminate
Growing your own.
I don’t think I’d ever grown a vegetable until I got an apartment in Hamden, CT in 2003. Growing up, my grandmother kept a garden (my Gram, of Gram’s Freezer full of Strawberry Freezer Jam), and I think we kept a garden at home sometimes, but I don’t really remember growing anything. I’d tried to grow sunflowers outside the window of my courtyard apartment in Columbus, OH, but the squirrels dug ‘em all up, and that was utterly deflating. I moved to New Haven, CT in 2000, and got myself on the waiting list for a community garden plot. The gardeners there mostly planted flowers, I think, but I wanted to grow vegetables. I waited, and waited to get off the wait list. When I moved up the road to Hamden, my apartment had the cutest little corner balcony, and I got this idea in my head that I could grow some tomatoes out there. So I bought a big plastic pot, some potting soil, and a couple of cherry tomato plants. And waited. And they GREW! And made TOMATOES! The first time I tasted one right off the plant, I think my mouth puckered, it was so sweet and tart and fresh. Had I had fresh tomatoes right off the plant before? I don’t know, but this one I was going to remember. I moved to Urbana, Illinois just a couple of years later (right about the time my name came off the wait list for a plot in Connecticut!), and it only took a year to run into someone who was looking for another person to share her community garden plot. It was a huge plot, about 30’ square, and she was growing everything from arugula to zucchini. (see what I did there?). I had no idea then, but that meeting and the experience of growing food in that plot, caring for it and tasting it, getting sweaty bringing in compost and hauling out weeds, getting bitten by noseeums and stung by nettles, but knowing that you grew it? All that is exactly what led me to where I am today.
Saving your own seed – heirloom-only
One of the best things about heirloom varieties of tomatoes (and most anything) is that you can save the seeds from the plants you like, and plant them again next year. Some types of vegetables are harder to save seeds from than others; carrots are a biennial, for instance, and it takes a whole year of letting greens grow and flowers form, to get seeds. You have to sacrifice the carrot to the earth, to get the seeds. But tomatoes! Tomatoes are so eager to get planted again that they’ll pop up in our garden plots completely of their own volition each spring. Those rogue tomatoes that fall off the vine (or get pulled off by squirrels) end up “donating” their seeds to the earth, and many of those end up germinating in the spring. But saving the seeds from your favorite heirloom tomatoes and keeping them indoors over the winter, to start the following spring, is pretty easy too, albeit somewhat messy.
First, find yourself a delicious tomato. A delicious HEIRLOOM tomato. It’s not that hybrid seeds won’t germinate; it’s that they don’t “breed true”. The tomato fruit may be like its parent (the seed), or it may be nothing like it. That’s one downside of hybrids. So find yourself that heirloom tomato. Now smoosh it. Seriously, smoosh it in a cup or a bowl. Probably smoosh a few of them. Now leave that cup or bowl of smooshed tomato somewhere outside for a while. Let it get super funky. It’ll get a sort of slimy skin on the top – that’s good. What you’re doing is letting the tomato break down the coating on the seed. If you don’t, it’ll never germinate in the spring. And from what I read, this is the best way, to just let the tomato and time do all the work. After about a week, the really messy part comes in: you need to get those seeds out, but only the seeds. A colander works pretty well for washing the seeds off, picking out the bits of tomato skin and gunk that remain. Once you just have the relatively clean seeds, spread them out on a screen or paper towel to dry. Once they’re completely dry, you can package them in a plastic baggie or (ideally) a wax/glassine envelope. It’s not that the plastic is bad, but if there’s any moisture in there, it’ll get sealed in, and your seeds will probably rot. If you’re starting tomatoes from seed, you’ll want to get them started indoors, and early. About 6(?) weeks before your last frost date (check the site). You can start them in little peat pots, or newspaper pots, or anything with rich, well-draining soil. You’ll need to keep the seeds and especially the little seedlings warm, and provide them with plenty of light. If you have a south-facing window where it isn’t too cold, that will be ideal. If not, you may need to invest in some lights. You’ll want the lights close to the seedlings when they’re small; if the light is too far away, the little seedling will stretch like crazy to reach the light, and you’ll end up with a leggy plant that can’t sustain itself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had gorgeous little seedlings fail just as they get a few inches tall. If you’re going to plant the seeds in the ground (which you could do, if your summer is long enough), you’ll want to test the seeds first. Get a little piece of paper towel and wet it, place a few seeds on it, and put it in a small plastic baggie. Put it in a warm place (I like to put all the test baggies in a cake pan and put it on top of the cable box, but you do you. Wait a few weeks, and then open them up and see if there’s any growth. For what it’s worth, the tomato seeds I’ve saved by merely smooshing and smearing them on a paper towel have never germinated well for me. Letting them get slimy and then separating them is much more reliable.