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Last Week I Bought a Tomato

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[info_box]Guest Blogger #10: Kaitlin Mayhew. Kaitlin and her husband own a small vegetable farm in Stafford County, Virginia. She loves real, traditional food, cooking and preparing from scratch, and living off the land. Visit Kaitlin’s blog at San Ysidro Farms. [/info_box]

Last week I bought a tomato. Now, this may not seem out of the ordinary to many of you. It is still summer, and tomato season is supposedly in full swing. I was, however, very upset about this purchase. The fact is I live on an organic farm, with over three long rows of tomato plants yielding tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and varieties.

Over the last few months I have become positively tomato-addicted. My favorites are the big yellow heirlooms with bright pink juicy centers.

My daily meals came to rely on tomatoes. I made everything from tomato salads, tarts, sauce, sandwiches, curry and anything else I could think to add them to.

I was spoiled with our seemingly endless crop.

Then, disaster hit. A few weeks of the hottest, most humid weather we’ve had in a long time, mixed with no rain created the perfect climate for full fledged insect colonies to descend on our poor defenseless garden.

Our squash, melons, cucumbers, swiss chard, and tomatoes, among others were devastated. 

Needless to say it was a terrible blow, and we weren’t sure how to react. We salvaged what we had left of our crops, mostly various peppers, onions, and a few greens to dole out to our CSA shareholders. 

We started pulling out the dead plants and re-tilling and raking the beds to try and plant some quick fall crops. 

But there were no more tomatoes.

Luckily for me, a farm down the road had managed to salvage a few more than we had and were selling what they said was “the very last” of their own attacked tomatoes. I bought a couple of small, very ripe tomatoes to get my fix for the day. 

As a person currently craving tomatoes I have a couple of options. I can:

  1. go to the grocery store and buy whatever they have which is usually conventionally grown, or organic but shipped from California to Virginia.
  2. Wait until Saturday to scavenge the various farmers markets for their remaining tomatoes
  3. Go without.

It’s option 3 that I am particularly concerned with. It’s just not something I’m used to, and the truth is, most of America isn’t used to it either. 

Just for a moment lets forget the fact that I have a particular taste for in-season heirloom tomatoes, if I was willing to just settle for any tomato or even any tomato product, my choices would increase dramatically.

For someone planning on making a homemade spaghetti sauce recipe they just found for dinner one particular night, the notion that there may not be tomatoes would never enter their mind. 

No matter what the season, draught and humidity or no, the shelves at the grocery stores always have tomatoes. 

They also always have multiple varieties of canned tomatoes: whole, halved, diced, with or without salt, Italian flavored, with jalapenos, etc.

Want to make tomato soup? A favorite of mine all year round, I keep a steady supply of tomato paste on hand for whenever the mood strikes. 

Tomato paste is about 50 cents a can, about $1 a can for organic. Tomatoes, in certain form are so accessable people forget what a commodity they are. 

I have been rudely reminded.

But what happens if modern agriculture the way it exists now does collapse? All of us who are loyal patrons of organic, local food, support the sustainable food movement and sign petitions against the huge industrialized companies. 

We want to live in a world where all of our food is ideally local and organic, but then, what happens when there are no tomatoes? 

In a Time Magazine article in 2008, Bryan Walsh asserts that we would need 40 million organic farmers to feed the world, whereas there are currently only one million.

Can we increase the number of organic farmers in the world by 39 million? How would that change our world? 

We know WHY we want to eat this way:

 We want to eat real food. Food that is as close to the earth and it’s original form as possible.

As Nina Planck said in her book Real Food: What to Eat and Why, “Real foods are traditional.” 

Hydrogenated vegetable oil made solid and dyed yellow is not as good for your body as butter. How could it be?

The sustainable movement has many champions, among them, Carlo Petrini. 
In his book “Slow Food Nation,” Petrini claims, “All this development…has proved to have great limitations and has created a number of situations…which are unsustainable.” He goes on to cite pollution, soil death, scarring of the landscape, reduction of nonrenewable energy sources, and loss of variety of produce and livestock as results of industrialized agriculture.

It’s a controversial issue. Can sustainable, organic agriculture feed us all? Even the urban and low income areas?

 Petrini holds that “only through a new sustainable agriculture that accepts both old traditions and modern technologies, can we begin to have hopes for a better future.”

He advocates networks of what he calls “gastronomes,” or people with passion for food. In essence he describes a network of local food distributors that work together to feed a community.

I think a portion integrating a system such as this comes down to planning. And that is where, I think it is going to hurt for most Americans used to convenience. 

Want tomato soup? If (like me) you didn’t think to can your own tomatoes because you thought you had another month of tomato excess, then you’d have to either seek out others who have and pay the price, or go without.

Want a burger for dinner? You needed to have sought out your cow farmer in advance and set up a time to buy in bulk. 

Craving bread? Buy your wheat in season in large amounts and grind your own flour. Set up a sourdough starter in your fridge. 

All these things are hard, extremely hard for those used to popping into a grocery store for a $4 pound of ground beef and a $3 pre-sliced loaf of bread.

And I’m not saying change all your ways. 

I can’t say that I won’t find myself in the grocery store next month snatching some tomato paste. I’m just asking you to give it some thought. We need to think about what going local on a large scale would do to our everyday lives, and how we could accommodate it.

We’re all busy, but taking small steps towards depending on sources we can put faces on is a positive step. 

What do you think? Can sustainable small farms feed people on a large scale? What are your feelings on a month with no tomatoes?

NOTE FROM MOMMYPOTAMUS: Leave a comment below to help Kaitlin win the Blog For Mommypotamus and Win Your Own Blog” Contest!

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8 Responses to Last Week I Bought a Tomato

  1. Kathryn Nordyke says:

    I think this is my favorite post–plenty to chew on.

  2. Kristine says:

    Great food for thought! I was thinking about this topic when the oil prices went so high. If we lost the trucking industry (the way food is transported to the grocery stores), we would have to do without food in the grocery stores. We would be forced to rely on local farms. I prefer to buy my food rather than grow it because I don’t have much of a green thumb (although I would like to have a small garden eventually). But I think we would all do whatever we had to to survive. I admire you for living off the land!

  3. Heather says:

    Last year I read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” Barbara Kingsolver’s tale of her one year commitment to only eat what she or her neighbors could grow/raise in the Appalachians. It inspired me. Since then I have found ways to source products closer and closer to home. Pastured beef, lamb, chicken and pork . . . TRULY pastured eggs (no grains at all!) . . . cheese from a local Amish community (when someone is willing to make the drive). My only failure . . . produce. I am beginning to think nothing grows in Texas. Our farmers markets are full of a few token heads of lettuce in the early spring and then they quickly transition to stuff imported from California. I’ve tried growing a small garden with little success. My tomato plants yield so little (is it the heat???) that I think it costs me around $10 per tomato to have homegrown.

    I’m still hoping to hone my gardening skills and reach some measure of success here, but it has got me thinking about whether or not it is possible to feed our particular region on what can be grown in this climate. It’s also got me thinking about relocating :)

    As for my thoughts on a month without tomatoes. Fresh, in-season produce tastes SO MUCH better anyway. I try as much as I can to enjoy each fruit/veggie at the peak of it’s flavor.

  4. Leah says:

    Heather, we face a similar challenge. Living on the coast of Maine, we have a very short growing season. During the summer/early fall months we have terrific farmer’s markets and CSAs, though. Kaitlin, you are right, we are not willing to eat only what is locally grown. We are not willing to do without. As Americans we feel very entitled to (among many other things) eat what we want when we want to. We don’t want to wait until September for apples, we want to eat them year round.

    • Heather says:

      It is difficult to commit to local, especially during pregnancy cravings : – ) I do my best, and then eat whatever my body needs. If it’s apples in July, then so be it. I’ll get better . . . I hope :)

  5. latisha says:

    this is my fav post so far. so well researched and thought out. its a topic my husband and i discuss often. it doesn’t seem realistic for everyone to be able to eat the way we do. its hard to come up with solutions. lucky for me, i live in arizona and we do have year round produce, but it’s often very very local. i’ve had some fun trying real traditional foods of the nations who lived here before we industrialized it all. who knew cactus paddles and mesquite beans could be so good. i think that is one key component to the mystery. eating local is not just about how can we grow every type of thing everywhere, but keeping in mind what grows best or traditionally in your area and trying to use that as much as possible. after all there isn’t that what eating traditional food is all about? there are many traditional diets with little variety in vegetables and they have done fine for hundreds of years.

  6. Kaitlin says:

    Thank you all for reading my post!

    Kathryn- Thank you!

    Kristine- You are right. I think it would be very interesting to see what would happen to food availability without those gigantic trucks transporting from coast to coast every day. If nothing else I think it would wake a lot of people up about their food sources and dependency. Gardens are a good idea…but definitely a learning process. We thought we were ready for anything and it turned out we weren’t. Good luck starting yours!

    Heather- I have not read that book but it sounds like a good read. I don’t know a lot about the growing season in Texas. I do know, however, that according to other tomato attempters this year…we were lucky even to have as many as we did. It was a terrible year for tomatoes. I think part of it is definitely the heat and for us the long periods of drought and humidity which result in perfect environment for insects– the large-scale corn farmers got subsidies for the government as a result of the drought because all their corn was ruined. We, as a small farm, of course, get nothing.
    But anyway, that mixed with the oddly cold spring we had made it a difficult year for planting. I know even now as I am searching out apple orchards, many of them are saying that because of these same conditions they don’t have many apples or their harvest is almost over.
    Also…I completely agree about the fresh, in-season tomatoes…but I have a tough time kicking my tomato soup habit…
    Congratulations on baby Micah!!! The photos are beautiful!

    Leah- You are absolutely right. Entitlement is definitely the source of the problem. I do think that some of this is simply because people are ignorant of where their food really comes from. Education won’t stop the problem, but I think it would change the mindsets of a lot of people.

    Latisha- Thank you! And you’re right, if you think about it, when you are traveling you always want to find the “local” food of the destination. So often today you can find spaghetti or mexican food anywhere you go…and people forget the art of cooking for their area.

  7. Guest Blog « San Ysidro Farms says:

    […] by sanysidrofarms I wrote a guest post on real food for Heather Dessinger on her wonderful blog The Mommypotamus. Check it out! Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Leprechaun traps, guitars, and […]

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