The Time is Ripe: A Look at the Tomato Industry
July 16, 2010
As tomato season arrives in the market, it can be difficult not to become a little obsessed with this versatile, savory fruit. We spoke with Arthur Allen, author of Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, about flavor, agricultural breeding, and the big picture of tomato farming.
CUESA: What makes the perfect tomato, in your opinion?
Arthur Allen: A lot of sun and a good breed are both important. You have to know what you’re doing with the soil. The best tomatoes I’ve ever had were mostly organically grown. Organic tomato plants tend to produce less, because you’re not pumping as much nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. into them, but they have more flavor.
I tasted Del Cabo tomatoes in the field in Mexico and they were the best I’ve ever eaten. They’re pretty good when I buy them in a grocery store, but they just don’t taste the same. You lose a lot of the volatiles in transit (through the stem hole, or some people think they're lost through the skin), which account for very fleeting and characteristic flavors.
CUESA: Can you say more about the shift toward portability in the tomato industry?
Arthur Allen: There is this inverse relationship between portability and flavor. To make something portable, you want it to be thick skinned so it doesn’t bruise easily. And you’re probably going to be picking it less than fully ripe in order to be selling it 2-3 weeks later. So those two things automatically go against the biology of flavor. Many farms are also growing larger fruit because bigger tomatoes require less labor in the harvesting process. But the bigger they are, the more they become sort of like water bags.
CUESA: Why do you think one of the most public discussions about farm labor is occurring in the tomato industry?
Arthur Allen: Tomatoes are one of the biggest crops in Florida. More than half of them go to fast food restaurants and all those fast food restaurants are always squeezing down on costs, so the farms don’t dictate the price. The bottom line is these undocumented workers get the shaft.
I went out and picked tomatoes one day in Immokalee, Florida; it was really harsh work. It was not even a very hot day for that area, but it’s piece-work [workers get paid by the bucket], so you have to keep going or you don’t get paid. And these guys I was working with were so nice. If they had a couple of extra tomatoes, they’d drop them in my bucket on the way to the truck. And although I’d picked about half as many as most of them, the way they’d rig the pay, the top guy made maybe $10 more than I did.
They don’t tell you what they’re going to be paying until the end of the day; and they calculate it so they’ll be paying minimum wage, no matter what. At the height of the season, workers can make maybe $80 in a 10-hour day. It’s supposed to be an eight-hour day but it really starts at 4:30 am and ends at 7 pm, when they drop you back off. A lot of the time you just spend waiting for the sun to come up and burn the dew off the fields. The workers take pride in producing food for people, but they’re pretty exploited and I think it’s a good thing that they’ve started to organize and get better pay.
CUESA: What other insight did it give you into the state of industrialized tomato production?
Arthur Allen: The whole system is so bizarre. We picked these tomatoes green and then they’d go to the packing operation where they’d sort them by size and gas them so that they start to turn. And then they’d ship them to another company that sorts them into boxes that are going to different companies — let's say they send several tons to McDonald's, which will have a centralized location where they slice them and put them in packages that go out to their burger chains.
CUESA: And it all relies on cheap fuel and cheap labor.
Arthur Allen: Yes, but on the other hand, you look at California, and a company like Morning Star — which makes 10% of the world’s canned tomato products – only has have around 200 employees. They beef up a little in the harvest season, but so much of their process is automated.
I tell the story in my book of how these two scientists at UC Davis — one was a breeder and the other was an agriculture engineer — developed the tomato harvester and a new breed of tomato designed for the harvester simultaneously in the early 60s. The tomatoes [were bred so they] wouldn’t fall off the vine when the harvester blade hit them, but they'd to fall off when they were shaken. And then in the early 70s they developed these color-sensing electronic eyes, which could tell if an unwanted green tomato was coming off the conveyor belt and would zap it with a little finger. So that meant there were even fewer human hands required. And gradually they reduced their labor force.
So it’s a double-edged sword. Because, on the one hand, picking tomatoes is such miserable work — and has always been low-paying. On the other hand, it took jobs away from people. And it’s a little hard to figure out what the ethics are.
CUESA: Was there anything that really surprised you in your process of writing the book?
Arthur Allen: Seeing this world — and going from the organic local, heirloom scene to these big farms producing zillions of tomatoes — I met a lot of people I liked and I really learned to admire farmers of all sizes.
I thought it would be more cut and dry in terms of good guys and bad guys — and there are some shady characters in the ag world — but it turned out I just really liked farmers.
Photo of Immokalee workers by Scott Robertson.