2013: Toward Tomato Independence, One Bite at a Time

Tomato tastingIt feels like winter in Idaho.  There are still a few fresh local tomatoes around, hidden away on shelves or in closets, carefully stored for one last sandwich, a final batch of fresh salsa.  But their season is past. The gardeners who jealously guard them until that last bite will soon turn their thoughts to next year’s crop.  With snow in the hills, it’s probably safe to say that the first year of the Tomato Independence Project is over, from the standpoint of tasty fresh tomatoes anyway.

What happened with the Tomato Independence Project in 2013?  We started out with a very modest idea:  that Treasure Valley residents are almost totally dependent on tomatoes from hundreds of miles away, even in the high season of tomato growing here and we could do better.

Industrial tomatoes have turned us into Stepford wives.  We accept tomatoes in salad bars, topping sandwiches, and garnishing plates every single day of the year.  Those red objects, labeled “Tomatoes” in the grocery are perfectly round and perfectly red but tasteless, and missing much of the nutrition of their summer garden brethren.  When you get right down to it, they’re worthless, and if we thought about it, we’d want our money back.  But we don’t and they continue to appear in all the places we’ve been trained to expect them.

If you think that tasting like a poor relation of the tomato is the worst feature of the modern, industrial tomato, you’d be wrong.  They create an environmental burden,  grown as they are in a monoculture, with unsustainable applications of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.  Tasteless tomatoes carry an enormous social justice burden, handpicked by virtual slaves, the poorest of farm workers with few options.  They  have an energy price tag, traveling by truck from California, Florida, and Mexico—tasteless food driven hundreds of miles.  Every day of the year the equivalent of three semi truck loads of tasteless tomatoes are distributed around the Treasure Valley.   That’s a lot of trucks.  And let’s not forget the economic burden.   Every year, valley residents spend (perhaps waste is more accurate) over $15 million on tasteless (but fresh!) tomatoes, sending that money to farmers and corporations far away.    Surely we could do better.

We kicked off the Tomato Independence Project  in the early spring with tomato starting classes at four locally-owned nurseries.  Seems like people really wanted to learn how to grow a great tomato as classrooms overflowed and more classes were added.

Once the plants were up, though, it was a bit challenging to be independent.  2013, as it turned out, was a disappointing tomato year.  A late frost in May caught gardeners and tomato farmers off guard and many plants were lost.  Just weeks later, unseasonably hot  temperatures spiked into the 100′s and few plants were able to set fruit.  Eventually the tomatoes came, but it was a lesson from nature.

There were enough tomatoes to enjoy a series of  Tomato Tuesday events.  These ranged from canning classes, a salsa festival, tasting 150 varieties of tomatoes (with a nod to Boise’s 150th birthday), Bloody Mary sampling, Red Beer making, seed saving and story telling.

The last Tomato Tuesday was an engaging talk by Barry Estabrook, the James Beard award-winning author of Tomatoland.  His book about how industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit was read by thousands of Idahoans.  Surprisingly, the book was the common read at Boise State University, the College of Idaho, and the University of Idaho.   It was a fitting close to our first year.

A lot of people in the Treasure Valley got involved with tomatoes in 2013, whether it was through a book, putting a plant in the ground, or saving seeds.   We hope that more than a few of them will just say no this winter and unchain their meals from the tyranny of tasteless tomatoes.

But we aren’t done!  The Tomato Independence Project continues in 2014 with a focus on processing (or how we eat tomatoes the rest of the year.)   Stay tuned.