Tomatoes in December | Civil Eats

Tomatoes in December

There is an easy way and a hard way to get ripe tomatoes in December.

The easy way is to head to your local supermarket and buy them. The hard way is to raise them, pick them green in late October or early November, put them in a box in the basement, cover them with a newspaper, and then be patient.

This latter ritual used to be practiced by nearly every American household, but we have collectively lost the skill, the need, and the desire, since food is cheap and readily available year round. However, there are good reasons why a renewed reliance on locally and regionally grown food will need to be developed by more than just us die-hard “foodies.”

Jim Hightower once observed ripe tomatoes falling out of a truck and bouncing on the highway in front of his car, and the sighting inspired his book, Hard Times, Hard Tomatoes. Tomatoes should have many qualities, but bouncing is not one of them. The modern, season-less tomato has been bred for two purposes, to ship well and to look good. Flavor is not a part of that equation, which is reason enough to leave them alone until summer.

However, there is another reason why buying jet-lagged tomatoes in the middle of winter is not such a hot idea. It takes more calories, from fossil fuels, to grow and ship a tomato than we get from eating the tomato. The world’s oil supply is running out; we have probably seen the last of cheap oil; and all but a handful of old-guard climate scientists agree that fossil fuel burning is creating global climate change. Everyone needs to be concerned that there nothing waiting to take oil’s place in our economy.

Shipping water, in the form of tomatoes, around the planet is not the only way that we expend fossil fuels in order to get those crunchy tomato-like facsimiles to your local grocery store. The nitrogen fertilizers and toxic pesticides used on the bouncing tomato are also made from fossil fuels.

Then there’s the big machinery. Hightower wrote about that wonder of agricultural science, the tomato picker, developed by the University of California. These machines require that fields be leveled with bulldozers using lasers. Farmers without laser-levelable fields are out of luck, and of course so are the human pickers. In just two years after the release of this machine, 900 farmers and 9,000 farm workers lost their living.

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All that machine leveling and picking takes fossil fuels, but so does maintaining the infrastructure used to transport produce everywhere. It takes fossil fuels to pave highways, ports and airport tarmacs. Besides the machinery needed to build these surfaces, the surfaces themselves are solidified oil.

For some industries, globalization makes some sense, but for food, it is short sighted to depend mostly on global sources, because we all need to eat.

In order for all Americans to have food security, we need to rethink this term so that it does not just mean whether low-income people have access to food. Unless we rely mainly on local and regional sources of food, it is likely that few people will be food secure in the near future. It is also a matter of national security. If we need to secure oil sources in order to survive, then we will continue to prop up governments that don’t like us and to fight more wars over oil.

At every level of government, we need to rethink food and energy policy immediately. And in our own communities, we need to start creating a local food infrastructure that brings together local resources, such as getting local farm products into schools, building community gardens on public land, buying the development rights of farms, creating covered year round farmers’ markets, etc.

Individuals can be proactive about their families’ food supply by learning to grow organic gardens and preserve foods. Even very small spaces – window boxes, rooftop planters, vertical gardens on outer walls, and small backyard beds – can support surprising amounts of food.

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We also need to realize that all goods things come in their own time – like tangy, juicy tomatoes. I can’t wait for next summer.

Photo: estherlandau

Steven M. Garrett has been working for a just and ecological sane food system for 20 years in Tacoma, Washington. He is currently a consultant and a PhD student in geography at the University of Washington. Read more >

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  1. On a very frosty day in October in Berkeley, I picked all my tomatoes, for fear of an extended frost. They slow ripened in a paper bag in my kitchen. (The frost lasted a week. It has been relatively warm since then.)
  2. Great article. If any of your readers are interested in getting started growing their own veggies, we (VegBox Recipes, in association with OOFFOO.com) recently hosted a live webcast on this very topic, with special guest Penney Poyzer (eco-activist / TV presenter / co-creator of the UK's first eco-retrofit of a Victorian home). A recording of the call and a summary sheet including a personal planning tool can be downloaded for free here: http://blog.vegbox-recipes.co.uk/2008/12/08/ready-steady-grow-your-own/
    It is our pleasure to share these resources with you all! Merry Christmas : )
  3. jonathan
    Good article, but I take exception to the point about tomato farmers being out of work when mechanized pickers are used. Picking tomatoes has become an exploitative process [1] and even if there are heavy requirements to get to an automated tomato picking process, the financial limitations are preferable, in my mind at least, to the pain and exploitation of fellow people.

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