October 25, 2011

Tomatoland Chapters Four and Five: Labor issues and Taste.

As far as tomato growers in Florida go, they're pretty powerful and they can get away with a lot of things. So what do you do when you want to change the system? Go to the customers of what the growers produce, and get them to change. It's not a perfect solution, but the only thing to get around the growers - and not even get around all that well, really. If something like the issues regarding labor laws bothers you, research the sources of your produce. 

Tomatoland has discussed farm workers, farm owners, and pesticide usage in tomato production - and now taste. A tomato from the grocery store tastes like a watery ghost of tomato, sometimes with a grainy texture and always a beautiful shiny skin. I'm never satisfied with a grocery store tomato, but I still buy them - I want to make fresh salsa, or need a tomato for the obligatory taco topping or burger addition. Nothing compares to the tomatoes I get from my gardens or the farmers market, tomatoes that have taste and texture that are much more satisfying. So if tomatoes can taste delicious from other sources, why aren't production tomatoes flavorful? It all comes down to processing - a common problem that affects a lot of produce. Growers look for a few key things in vegetables and fruit for production purposes. First, you need a consistent crop - the fruit should be ripe all at the same time to save on labor, and of the same shape and size. Second, the fruit has to survive the production process - the picking, the moving, the packing. A worker picks a tomato, places it in a bucket with a bunch of other tomatoes, and then dumps the tomatoes in a big tub of tomatoes. These tomatoes get trucked to a processing plant, in which the tomatoes travel around between water baths and conveyer belts, falling down here and ratcheting up there. To survive, a tomato needs a thick skin and tough interior to not be squashed. Third, the tomato has to have a long shelf life to endure the entire process and make it to the markets. 

A fresh picked backyard tomato would never survive this process. So what happened? Growers picked fruit that could survive the process. These particular tomatoes are picked at a mature green and then treated with ethylene to induce a red color. Sometimes, these 'mature greens' aren't quite mature, but workers can't tell the difference and the consumer gets tricked. A tomato that gets a high grade in production has a particular shape, shine and color - taste doesn't matter. Taste is tricky because there are a lot of components that go into a particular fruit's taste, and it's difficult to breed according to these tastes because the genetics aren't understood completely. So when a grower understands enough to breed a tough skin, even ripening across the crop, and resistance to some disease, taste is left out.

So what does this mean? If you want the convenience of a grocery store tomato that is available year round, then you'll pay for it in a lack of taste. But if you're willing to pay more and eat seasonally, flavorful tomatoes can be found at farmers markets and in CSA boxes every summer. 

Tomatoes from greenhouses, called hothouse tomatoes, tend to not have the same struggles of production that field tomatoes do. So far, Mr. Estabrook has only shared the scorn Florida tomato growers feel towards hothouse tomatoes because of their competitive value. Growing things in greenhouses makes a lot of sense because you can manipulate the temperature and light radiation to produce whenever. More on this later, stay tuned!

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