Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Picked so green you could kick them to market"

That was the dismissive phrase my paternal grandfather used to describe some of his fellow farmers back in the Rio Grande valley. By picking early you got produce that was easier to harvest and to handle but which was absolutely flavorless. It was not something done by farmers who took pride in their work.

At the time my grandfather was engaging in a bit of comic hyperbole. These days he might be understating the case (Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, from an NPR interview):
Yeah, it was in southwestern Florida a few years ago, and I was minding my own business, cruising along, and I saw this open-back truck, and it looked like it was loaded, as you said, with green apples.

And then I thought to myself wait, wait, apples don't grow in Florida. And as I pulled up behind it, I saw they were tomatoes, a whole truckload mounded over with perfectly green tomatoes, not a shade of pink or red in sight. As we were going along, we came to a construction site, the truck hit a bump, and three or four of these things flew off the truck.

They narrowly missed my windshield, but they did hit the pavement. They bounced a few times, and then they rolled onto the shoulder. None of them splattered. None of them even showed cracks. I mean, a modern-day industrial tomato has no problem with falling off a truck at 60 miles an hour on an interstate highway.

In addition to being tasteless, Estabrook also points out that compared to tomatoes from other sources or from a few decades ago, the modern Florida variety have fewer nutrients, more pesticides (particularly compared to those from California), and are picked with what has been described as 'slave labor' (and given the use of shackles this doesn't seem like much of an exaggeration).


  1. Were these boxcar tomatoes? They were developed in the 50s in response to the nuclear war scares. Supposedly they could take anything but a direct hit. I think they were part of the nation's Strategic Vegetable Supply, one of the lesser known efforts of the Cold War.

  2. I assumed from the interview that these tomatoes were representative of what you normally get from Florida. That said, I would be surprised if agricultural companies hadn't leveraged government research you mentioned when breeding these tomatoes.