If you visited the Produce Auction in Penn Yan a few weeks ago you would have seen a lot of happy tomato farmers: Tomato prices were hovering around $2.00/lb. This past week 15 lb. flats of beefsteak tomatoes were selling for $3-$4. Why such a drastic crash? Of course, it’s not because people have suddenly decided to stop eating tomatoes. In other words, this “crash” is not an issue of demand, but rather one rooted in supply. This has very simply been an incredible year for tomatoes. With extremely hot days and almost no rain, tomato crops are free of disease and exploding with fruit. Everybody has them, and has LOTS of them.
Different crops enjoy different growing conditions. Knowing this, small and mid-sized farmers attack the uncertainty of each year head on by diversifying their plantings. Depending on what the year throws at us, some crops do great and others might not make it. Our current situation is a perfect example of this: Tons of tomatoes but maybe not so much cabbage. In a perfect world this approach to diversification would work…well, perfectly.
The problem quickly becomes apparent though, at least when visiting a place like the produce auction. Weather is usually not hyper-localized, so a lot of growers experience similar conditions, so all the farms end up with too many tomatoes. Now, not only do farmers end up losing money from crops that haven’t done well this year, but the market for crops that did very well plummets because there’s a glut. It’s a cycle that seems to manifest itself differently every growing season.
With this in mind, we made a point to buy a lot of tomatoes this past week. In fact, we purchased from eight different growers! We paid better than the rock-bottom market prices, thinking not only about the price the market was telling us to pay, but also about the actual cost of buying seed, planting and transplanting, hiring employees, irrigating and harvesting. Farmers work their tails off, and should be paid accordingly. They should not be “punished” for having a good tomato year.
From a more traditional viewpoint, this is bad business on our part. And yet we feel that we need to, with the ongoing support of our members, play a part in supporting growers and helping to build a more sustainable, resilient food system. This has been a small window into the intriguing world of tomato economics, and yet it’s a great reminder of why we buy the food we do. We want food full of flavor, of course, but we also want GOOD food. As we all know, there are many ways to qualify what that really means, and it most likely means something different to each of us. Certainly there is a little more to GOOD food than just flavor. In regards to these tomatoes, I’d like to define it not only as a vine-ripened ball of juicy goodness, but as a living fruit that recognizes and supports the endless hours that farmers put into their work so that we can enjoy every moment of this wonderful harvest season.