Editorial: In appreciation for California’s perfect comestibles: tomatoes

Its remarkable amplitude

and abundance,

no pit,

no husk,

no leaves or thorns,

the tomato offers

its gift

of fiery color

and cool completeness.

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Tomato”

Tomato season officially starts in July in the Golden State, but now is the real high mark of the annual tomato-palooza.

It’s when heirloom tomatoes in odd shapes and hues crowd the tables at farmers markets and per-pound prices plummet.

It’s when co-workers leave bags bursting with the surplus bounty from their gardens on the break-room counter. What they can’t pawn off on friends or colleagues they turn into salsas and sauces and sofritos to freeze to use the rest of the year.

It’s when Central Valley farmers are in the heat of the processed tomato harvest. California grows about one-third of the world’s output, much of that in the Central Valley. You can almost smell the bruschetta in the air.

It’s during these waning days of the tomato season that we here in the farm-to-fork capital are pausing to appreciate the wonderful, versatile fruit so important to our dinner tables and economy, and to ponder its future.

First, some fun facts about tomato growing: There are two kinds of tomato crops. Fresh market, the fruits we buy at Safeway or the farmers market, and processed, the varieties grown to be made into some other product such as sauce or juice.

According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, tomatoes – fresh and processed combined – are one of California’s top 10 agricultural commodities. Milk is No. 1. Last year, the state’s processed tomato bounty – 12.1 million tons – was worth about $918 million. The state’s fresh tomato haul was smaller but still impressive: about 420,000 tons worth about $304 million.

Processed tomatoes are fresh, too – in a sense, even fresher than those found at the market. They are picked when they are “dead, red ripe,” said Bruce Rominger, chairman of the board of the California Tomato Growers Association and a Yolo County farmer, and canned within hours of picking. That means they retain tons of the nutrients such as lycopene that make them great.

Unusual heirloom tomatoes are a hot trend among fresh market consumers.

“Everybody is trying to get away from round, red and tasteless,” said Brad Gates, owner of Wild Boar Farms, a small, organic tomato outfit in Napa Valley. This year, his popular varieties include Berkeley Tie Dye, Pork Chop and Blue Beauty, which has indigo colors inside and can turn almost black when ripe.

Now, some sobering facts about tomato growing: This was a so-so year for tomatoes. Not terrible, but not great, either, Rominger said. Though it’s not over yet, he expects the yield will be less than the expected 14 million tons.

Drought is a factor, especially for farmers in San Joaquin and elsewhere who saw wells go dry or run low. Other tomato farmers did better than last year.

If the drought continues next year, Rominger expects some acreage to be taken out out of production. Row crops can sit out a dry year; permanent ones, like the much more profitable almonds, cannot.

Of course, that’s not terrible for the remaining tomato growers. Global hunger for tomatoes is ravenous, and California supplies more of the processed tomatoes for the world than any other place – including China. The smaller the supply, the higher the prices.

And, finally, the glorious future? For fresh tomatoes, at least, that might be in our backyards.

It wasn’t a great tomato year for Gates’ Napa Valley organic tomato farm, either. Summer thunderstorms exacerbated bug infestations, and that meant a quicker, smaller harvest, he said.

The fresh tomatoes market is a bit of a roller coaster. For that reason, Wild Boar Farms is moving into the front end of tomatoes – creating new heirloom varieties, selling seedlings to nurseries around Northern California and seeds on his farm’s website, www.wildboarfarms.com.

That’s probably a wise move as the backyard gardening revolution takes off. Tomato plants are, naturally, a standard feature.

Tomato season usually wraps up in October, though it can go into November if the conditions are right. But why gamble? There’s no better time than right now to enjoy this perfect California comestible.