Heirloom tomatoes may be a tomato-lover’s dream, but they are very close to being a farmer’s nightmare. We have spent almost twenty years growing them, and yet each year is like spinning a giant roulette wheel. Each year there are certain varieties that perform well, while others fail almost completely to produce. The next year, the varieties might flip flop on their performance. While we generally understand the correlation with certain weather patterns — some varieties like cooler weather, others like it hot — there is absolutely nothing we have figured out to do about it.
If we were only growing tomatoes for our CSA boxes, we would almost certainly not grow heirloooms — or at least, not many of them. Instead, we would grow Early Girls and a few other hybrid varieties that are reliable and heavy producers while still offering delicious flavor. To put it in perspective: there are times when a single bed of Early Girls produces more tomatoes than five times that many beds of heirlooms. They produce well under difficult weather conditions, and they produce even better when the weather is good.
Heirloom tomatoes are one of the only crops we primarily grow for customers other than our CSA subscribers. Most large tomato growers refuse to grow them, so there is a niche market for smaller farms like ours. This has kept their price significantly higher than most other tomatoes — and for good reason.
There are plenty of reasons other than unpredictability why heirloom tomatoes cost more. They are extremely delicate, requiring special boxes and additional packaging to prevent bruising. Even in a good crop year, they produce far less “#1 quality” fruit than regular tomatoes. Many are odd shaped, and the thin skins are more susceptible to insect damage as well as cracking when nights get cool and there is heavy dew.
This is where TFF’s CSA comes in. We do not “charge” our customers a higher price for any heirlooms that end up in your boxes. Right now we are valuing your tomatoes at $2.50 per pound; organic heirlooms are selling in stores for twice that much. There are two reasons we do this. First, any heirlooms that go into your boxes are not the perfectly shaped, unblemished ones demanded by retailers. Second, we don’t differentiate between tomato types at all when we are filling the bags (although we do try to put tomatoes of different ripenesses in). So we can’t charge one price for regular red tomatoes and a higher price for heirlooms. Imagine the scene if we were to try to ensure that each customer got a specific mix of tomatoes — our bag packers would have to walk down a row of boxes specifically laid out with the different varieties. Instead, they take tomatoes from three or four different boxes, all which may be heirlooms, or none.
Occasionally we have so many heirlooms of a single type that we are able make sure that every subscriber gets at least one. On this occasion I might highlight that variety in the newsletter. But the fact remains that if you discover one specific variety of heirloom tomato that we grow, the only way to be sure you get more of it will be to go to a store or farmers’ market where heirlooms are sold and buy some.
What if every subscriber wrote in to let us know that they all preferred one variety — let’s say Marvel Stripe — and you wanted us to grow enough so everyone got at least one every week and you were willing to pay more for them? We still would not be able to guarantee that we could do so. We could plant an acre of Marvel Stripes and there would still be years when we would get almost zero tomatoes from that field.
And that is why we also grow Early Girls, and why heirloom tomatoes are more expensive — and always will be. I apologize if last week’s newsletter made it seem like you were absolutely going to get heirloom tomatoes in your boxes and if you were disappointed that you did not. Because when we play Tomato Roulette, you are playing along with us.