Last week I took a macro look at California Tomatoes. This week, I’m zooming in to talk about Terra Firma’s tomatoes and how the last three years have affected how we grow them.
For twenty years, heirloom tomatoes were our biggest single crop at Terra Firma, some years generating almost half our annual income and taking up most of our time and energy from the time for most of the year. This year, we’ve planted hardly any — as some of you have noticed already and commented on.
Heirlooms take a lot of extra work to grow, produce erratically and unpredictably, and are incredibly perishable compared to other tomatoes. But for years we were rewarded for growing them by a clientele that put a very high value on them: Restaurant chefs who prized their delicate flavor and unusual appearance. They highlighted the flavors, colors and textures of the different varieties by finding the perfect recipe pairing for each. One chef invented an intense consomme using a highly flavorful variety that, served in a shot glass, became a highlight of the restaurant’s menu. It took 20 lbs. of the tomatoes to make a few cups of soup.
I am not that much of a tomato snob. I love just about any good tomato variety as long as it’s ripe. But not all heirloom varieties are appropriate to use for certain recipes. Some have very subtle flavors that are easily lost if combined with aggressive ingredients such as vinegar or strong cheese. And very few heirloom varieties are good when cooked into sauce — they become cloyingly sweet or overly acidic, and turn unappealing colors when heated.
Selling heirloom tomatoes to anyone other than chefs was always a struggle. I remember cutting up different varieties to give samples at the farmers’ market, only to have people demand to know “which is the sweetest?”. Most supermarket produce managers hate heirlooms, which must be treated with extra TLC and priced differently. And rather than highlighting the unique qualities of the different varieties, they tend to just jumble them together in a pile with no labelling or explanation. We no longer sell heirlooms to retailers who treat the tomatoes that way as they are not willing to pay enough for them.
Unfortunately, the same is true when we put heirlooms in your CSA boxes: they get mixed into the bags with no way to identify them. I know that many of you enjoy getting that surprise in your box, but others have let us know that they would prefer Early Girls or another “normal” tomato instead.
In order to make a profit on heirloom tomatoes, we need to get more than twice the price we get for regular tomatoes. They tend to produce less fruit, and require more care in harvest and packing. But when we put them in your CSA boxes, we don’t price them differently. It’s only fair, since you don’t get to decide whether you want them. But for many years, we were essentially subsidizing the heirlooms in your boxes with the proceeds from the restaurants who bought most of them.
The arrival of Covid in 2020 was a trainwreck for heirloom tomatoes. By April 1st, it was already clear to us that our primary market for the tomatoes was gone as we received news that all of our restaurant customers — and even some of the distributors that sell to them — were shutting down. With most of the tomato plants already seeded in the greenhouse, we made the difficult decision to throw half of them away. But when harvest time arrived, that was still far more heirloom tomatoes than the market could handle. We abandoned large parts of the tomato field.
In 2021, we were cautiously optimistic that the world might open up again by summer. We planted fewer heirlooms than we had planted since 2001, but it was still too much. In some ways, 2021 was worse than 2020 for us: restaurants were still closed, but CSA subscribers had gone back to their summer travel habits.
Then in August a second virus arrived: a tomato-specific one that laid waste to much of our tomato field. Called “Spotted Wilt”, I wrote a newsletter about it last fall.
Modern, hybridized varieties of tomatoes are bred to have resistance to many kinds of pests and diseases. They also can tolerate greater swings in weather conditions. Heirloom tomatoes have none of this highly selective breeding — you could call them the “Anti-vaxxer” tomatoes.
This winter, while planning the 2022 tomato field, I was super conservative. I planted a tiny fraction of the number of heirlooms we normally would plant. I also tracked down tomato varieties that are specifically bred to resist Spotted Wilt (SWV) — vaccinated, you might say.
Spring of 2022 was hard on tomatoes, with alternating bouts of very hot weather and too cold weather. The heirlooms are of course extra sensitive to bad weather, and so far have produced very little fruit. Most of the tomatoes we’ve been harvesting are hybrid Early Girls. Meanwhile, most of our restaurant customers are back in business and offering extra-high prices for any heirlooms we have had available.
Just the other day my wife Marisa brought in a few tomatoes to the house, including one “with weird spots all over it” — the first I’ve seen this year with the virus. Just like Covid, it is becoming a fact of life. Going forward, we will continue to grow great tasting tomatoes and share them with you. But there will likely be fewer and fewer heirloom tomatoes and more of the virus-resistant varieties as long as we can find ones that meet our standards for flavor.