During the last California drought, media outlets latched onto the idea that almonds — California’s number 1 crop and the most popular nut in the world — took too much water to grow. This time around, there’s a narrative emerging that the Netherlands is a better place to grow tomatoes than California, owing to their lower water use.
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in the world, and the second most popular in the U.S. The average American eats 40 lbs. of tomatoes, both fresh and processed. 83% of tomatoes eaten in the U.S. are grown right here in California.
Tomatoes like warm, dry weather and hate rain. Moisture and humidity cause fungal diseases on both the plant and fruit, and rain during harvest is generally a disaster. The two best places to grow them are areas with a long, predictable dry season or in a greenhouse. In the U.S., California offers the best conditions during the summer. In the winter, Florida is the best domestic option but our neighbor Mexico is also a large producer.
The majority of tomatoes are either canned or used in processed foods such as ketchup, salsa or pasta sauce. Generally referred to as “processing tomatoes”, these are tomatoes with thick skins and very little juice. They are grown in fields of hundreds of acres and harvested by machines directly into semi-trucks that take them to canneries. This system of producing tomatoes was developed right here in Yolo County by farmers working with UC Davis, and the first mechanical tomato harvester was built here.
Fresh market tomatoes, which is what we grow at Terra Firma, cannot be harvested mechanically. They are a highly perishable commodity that continues to ripen after harvest, and thus are often picked when still partially green. Even “vine-ripe” tomatoes are not fully ripe when harvested; if they were, they would be mushy by the time a shopper got them home.
Nearly all tomatoes grown commercially in the world, whether for processing or for the fresh market, must be irrigated*. Here in California, the vast majority are now watered with super-efficient drip systems that deliver water directly to the roots of the plants while keeping the soil surface bone dry. And on an acre per pound basis, they dramatically outproduce other crops that use just as much or more water — such as sweet corn or green beans.
It’s true that Dutch tomatoes use less water — about 25% less than California tomatoes. And they are impressively productive, pumping out 1 million tons of tomatoes in 2020. But Dutch tomatoes grow in greenhouses made of plastic, heated with natural gas, and dehumidified artificially. It takes over 200 times as much energy to grow them, producing 20 times more greenhouse gases.
Meanwhile here in California, we produced over 10 times as many tomatoes as the Netherlands. To convert the two-hundred thousand plus acres of tomato fields here into greenhouses might save a little water, but only at the cost of millions of pounds of additional greenhouse gases produced.
The narrative that “agriculture is not a good use of California’s water” has always been, at root, a profoundly misinformed view that somehow imagines that the food produced in our state can somehow be grown elsewhere. Until recently, it was an understandable view for Americans, who have the least expensive food in the world and take it for granted that it will be cheap and abundant. But spiraling food prices due to oil prices, fertilizer shortages and of course Russia’s war against the Ukraine should bring some perspective. With climate change raging, a future of food shortages and scarcity is the most likely outcome.
Many if not all of the major tomato-growing regions of the world are receiving less rainfall than they did thirty years ago. Happily, farmers have learned how to produce more tomatoes with less water. California remains one of the best and most sustainable places to grow tomatoes in the world and every Californian should be proud that we’re the nation’s number 1 producer.
- — “Dry-farmed” Tomatoes are grown on perhaps a hundred acres in coastal California where cool, foggy conditions the plants to survive without water.