Columns, Opinion

KRANTZ: Waiting for tomatoes

If you had asked me six months ago how to properly prune a tomato plant, or the difference between green zebra and beefsteak tomatoes, I would have laughed. Since May, however, I’ve learned bushels about organic farming ‘- by reading seed catalogues, by nagging busy farmers at the market, but mostly by sticking my hands in the dirt, yanking out a stem and hoping I get a weed. Learning tactics such as seed coating might be worth a shot.

However, there’s still something I haven’t done, something missing from my organic resume, which really bothers me: I’ve never picked a ripe tomato off a vine. Perhaps this sounds inconsequential, but I’ve come incredibly close four times and never done it, and that really bothers me.

The divas of every farmers market, tomatoes represent everything that’s beautiful, and horrible, about organic farming. They come in hundreds of types, including yellow, purple, white, green or orange heirloom varieties that have funny names like green zebra and beefsteak. If not for small farms trying to revive them, these unique varieties would quickly become extinct.

Also, tomatoes taste exponentially better when grown organically. Rather than the thick-skinned ones, shipped from South America in December, organic tomatoes ripen in sun and have thin filmy skin that bursts when you bite into it, or drop it. For this reason, you have to pick them carefully, or so I’ve been told ‘- because I still haven’t done it!

The downside of organic tomatoes is that, if you take your eye off them for two seconds, they contract disease. Organic plants have to be watched extra closely for bugs, because the slightest infestation can ruin a crop instantaneously. And they are so high maintenance. They require hours of pruning, fertilizing and tying their pretty little vines up so they’ll grow straight.

In addition, there’s always the competition to see which farm can produce the first crop. While industrial farms win the race with special machinery and chemicals, being the first natural farm to get a crop takes expert planning and lots of careful attention.

Still, everyone has a tomato fetish. Customers at market break into smiles if they see big red beauties, because tomatoes equal sunshine and summertime. And who doesn’t like summer?

So, unfortunately for me, I have learned about the entire life cycle of a tomato plant, except the part where you get to pick a big red one off the vine and take a bite.

I arrived at my farm in France in late May, so each tomato was only a seedling ‘- two tiny leaves sprouting in a cup of dirt. My first job at the farm was to transplant them from their tiny cups of dirt into soil in a bigger greenhouse.

The best part about that farm was learning how to do a bit of everything. I drove the tractor, worked in the farm store and built sprinklers. But at least once a day, I returned to the tomato plants. The tiny seedlings soon became climbing vines, and I started to enjoy the humid greenhouses and the sticky residue that coated my hands after winding the plants around their string. But before anything red appeared on the stalks, I had to leave that farm.

When I returned home to Florida, due to the different growing season, the tomatoes were already picked and piled high in the grocery store. The first time I visited a grocery store since working on a farm, I found all my new acquaintances In the produce isle. Suddenly I knew what bok choy, Swiss chard and all the other odd vegetables were because we’d grown them on the farm. But sadly I also realized most of the produce came from California or South America. Almost nothing was local.

Eventually I found the farm produce lurking at roadside stands and there were tomatoes! They looked pretty and tasted good, and they were local, but I wanted the satisfaction of picking my own tomato off the vine.

‘ In September, when I came to Boston, the last batches of tomatoes should have been overflowing from stands at the farmer’s market. But blight ‘-‘- a disease that targets tomato crops ‘-‘- had struck, killing nearly all the tomatoes in New England. At the Long Island Farm on Boston Harbor, I witnessed the final gruesome moments of a tomato plant’s life as my gangster friends and I bulldozed the rotten vines so the blight wouldn’t reenter the soil and contaminate it for next year.

The blight presented an ethical dilemma for organic farmers: some people wanted farmers with healthy tomato crops to destroy their tomatoes so the blight wouldn’t spread and infect other farmers. But on the other hand, they could sell those healthy crops to tomato-starved customers at the market. Generally, small farms cooperate by buying one another’s produce, sharing the cost of expensive equipment and swapping strategies, but during the blight, they were lucky if they could sell the season’s only tomatoes. This was a lucrative advantage that helped them make ends meet financially. Either way, I didn’t get to pick any tomatoes in Boston.

Then, over Thanksgiving, I visited a new organic farm in Atlanta. Georgia has very few organic farms. Old trends in California and New England catch on slowly down South, including the trend of sustainable small farms. The farm was started by a professor who juggled teaching and farming. This year, she rallied enough customers to buy her organic produce that the farm, her real passion, could be her full time job. But alas, in late November, this farm didn’t have any tomatoes either.

So I am still yearning for the chance to pluck a warm, fragrant tomato off the vine and enjoy the satisfaction of having grown it myself. In the mean time, working at these farms has taught me a lot about what it takes to make things thrive, and about the ups and downs of organic growing. Hopefully someday, when I finally get to eat a good tomato, I’ll find that my waiting and learning has paid off.’

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