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The Great Tomato Debate: Heirlooms, Hybrids, or GMOs?

With their rainbow colors and odd shapes and sizes, the appeal of heirloom tomatoes is undeniable. But more than just a pretty face, these darlings of the summer farmers market also represent diversity and freedom in our food supply.

“People ask me, ‘Is this heirloom or hybrid?’” says farmer Bill Crepps of the Winters, California farm Everything Under the Sun. “You can tell that there’s something they don’t like about the word ‘hybrid.’” Read more

Five Things I Will Not Eat

My partner eyed me sternly when I announced that my next book was going to be an investigative look at pork production. “Does this mean that I’ll have to give up eating bacon?” she asked.

Deadly outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella in spinach and cantaloupes, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” connected to pork and chicken production, potent drugs that are banned in the United States in imported shrimp and catfish: Nothing has the potential to destroy your appetite quite as thoroughly as writing about industrial food production or living with someone who does. Somehow, I have remained omnivorous, more or less. But there are only five things that I absolutely refuse to eat. Read more

Kitchen Table Talks SF: Heirlooms to Labor Rights: A Look at Modern Tomatoes

Summer in San Francisco is here, and if you listen carefully, you will hear a cry from locavores: “The tomatoes are here!” Our farmers’ market tomatoes usually start with small cherry tomatoes, which burst in your mouth, and as we head into August, you’ll start seeing larger tomatoes, which are perfect for salads, finally culminating in tomato abundance in September, which is the time that many of us start our canning projects.

But tomatoes that we get at our local farmers’ markets are not the norm. Much of the $5 billion tomato industry in the United States focuses on providing tomatoes to consumers year-round. This consumer demand comes at a steep price; supermarket tomatoes are usually tasteless, artificially ripened, and picked by farmworkers who are treated unjustly and exposed to extreme levels of pesticides.

Join us for the next Kitchen Table Talks in San Francisco where we delve into the story of tomatoes, including labor rights and the successes of the Campaign for Fair Food, heirloom varieties of tomatoes, and a discussion about tomato research being conducted at the University of California, Davis. Read more

Improving the Lives of Farmworkers with a Penny More per Pound

You would never participate in slavery, right?

I know, it seems like a bizarre question in this day and age–of course no sane, civilized member of a modern society would take part in the indentured servitude of others. Lincoln ended all that 150 years ago, didn’t he? And of course you and I would never have anything to do with slavery in 2010.

The dirty little secret though is that millions of Americans are contributing to it each week and they don’t even know it. When you buy tomatoes at the local Publix, Ahold, Kroger, or Walmart, you become the last link in a chain that is attached to shackles in south Florida. Read more

Strawberry Show Down: No Methyl Iodide with My Shortcake, Please

Commercially grown strawberries and tomatoes in California could start getting an unhealthy dose of the highly toxic fumigant methyl iodide, a known carcinogen, neurotoxin, and thyroid disruptor. Among scientists’ greatest concerns is the pesticide’s ability to cause spontaneous abortion late in pregnancy. So you might be surprised to hear that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) recently issued a proposed decision to approve methyl iodide for use just months after a state-commissioned study warned that any agricultural use “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health” adding that, “adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.” Read more

Practicing Seedy Politics

Many gardeners are currently pulling up plants and preparing beds for fall. They are laying parts of their garden to rest while their squash lay about, curing in the sun. Some gardeners are already turning their backs on their plots and projecting their green minds through winter and into next spring. But fall is not the time for complacency in the garden. It’s a great time to sneak in some late plantings of lettuce and greens—and it’s the ripest time of year to save some seeds. Read more

Late Blight on the Roof, and the Small Farmer’s Plight

Two weeks ago, I noticed that two of my tomato plants had late blight. I was up on the roof, weeding, pulling off yellowing leaves from all the excess rain, and harvesting some early tomatoes when I noticed leaves with yellow and brown spots on them. I’d read the article in the New York Times about the blight, and so I sent out the photo on the left to Twitter, asking my followers, “is this the blight?” The answer, sadly, was yes. So I pulled one plant up, before it could spread to the others, and took all the leaves off the other plant which was confined to a corner, hoping to let it’s three giant tomatoes ripen.

Unfortunately, rooftops are not immune from the soil disease that ravages spuds and tomatoes — I bought my seedlings from two small nurseries upstate, which had grown them locally. But it is possible that contamination had already spread to my tomatoes from the nurseries’ neighbors who bought their plants at big box stores like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, which sold plants in soil from an Alabama facility that carried the blight. Ironically, it is new growers’ enthusiasm that might have exacerbated the disease through increased consumer demand. And while a record number of people are growing some of their own produce this year, excess rain in the northeast has created the perfect conditions for the blight to flourish — but it is small organic farmers that are taking a punch. Read more

Tomato Disappointment: A Farmer’s Perspective on Late Blight in the Northeast

I have an entire cookbook devoted to tomatoes.  Admittedly, I have a lot of cookbooks, but tomatoes are the only vegetable in my kitchen with an entire cookbook singing their praises.  But then, they are tomatoes, the crown of the summer growing season and the crop that can make or break a small vegetable farm.  Every strange vegetable from kohlrabi to escarole has its devoted fans, but tomatoes are as much of an American summer institution as baseball and 4th of July fireworks. Tomatoes are the crop that everyone is waiting for.

For those of us living in the Northeast this year, if could be a long wait.  Earlier this summer, tomato transplants sold in Lowes, Walmart, and Home Depot carried the spores of Phytophthora infestans (literally “plant destroyer” in Latin) into the Northeast, where a cool, wet summer provided ideal conditions for an epidemic.  Phytophthora infestans, more commonly referred to as late blight, is an incredibly contagious plant disease, which can knock out entire fields of tomatoes and potatoes in a matter of days.  Late blight was the cause of the infamous Irish Potato Famine of the nineteenth century—this is a plant disease which means business. Read more