Sunday, March 2, 2008

It's Complicated, Part 2

I really love fresh tomatoes--hardly a bold, controversial statement, but heartfelt: tomato/basil sandwiches, especially if they are on slices of La Vie en Rose Tuscan Loaf, cherry tomatoes off the vine while I’m weeding around them; fresh tomatoes on pizza; roasted tomatoes; stuffed tomatoes; tomato slices with some of that fancy salt my friend Vicky Jenkins carries around with her; fresh tomato curry; tomato risotto…

Stop!!! This is making me crazy. It barely March, and I rarely eat fresh tomatoes until I can get them from close to home, preferably from that big container on my deck. I have it on wheels so I can keep pushing it into the sunniest spots as the season moves along. Some of this anticipation is pleasurable, like waiting for your true love to come back after absence--ah those reunions. And with tomatoes, it’s much less complicated--none of that renegotiation of new and old roles--you can just dive right in.

But I’m not a purist, and I’ll no doubt succumb to a basket or two of tomatoes before the too-brief local season arrives. The question is…which ones?

If I’m tracking food miles, then my choices are B.C. hothouse tomatoes or the hydroponic ones grown by the Hayes family just down the road in Custer. If it’s price, then Grocery Outlet probably has some grape tomatoes from somewhere that will be mostly ok if I use them right away.

If it’s all about the carbon footprint, my latest reading makes it seem that organic from Mexico may be a better bet than the seemingly obvious local choices. The aforementioned (It's Complicated, part 1) New Yorker article by Michael Spector (you can also listen to his interview with Terry Gross at points out that many factors besides food miles go into a carbon footprint. He says, for example, that apples shipped to Manhattan from New Zealand, assuming they travel by sea, probably involve fewer carbon emissions than those trucked down from upstate New York. Climate, growing conditions and farming practices all factor in to the mix, and New Zealand’s soil and sunshine make for more productive acreage with less outside input. Spector says the same holds true for New Zealand lamb shipped to Great Britain as compared with those Yorkshire sheep you read about in All Creatures Great and Small. In probably the most quoted part of his article, he says that if you live east of Cleveland, you are doing your sustainable duty if you buy French wine (which travels most of the way by sea) rather than California or Washington wine (trucked eastward on our vastly subsidized highway and petroleum distribution systems). Unless, of course, the trucks are running on biodiesel. Unless again, of course, that biodiesel is made from fuel-intensive factory-farm crops that are displacing real food crops.

Back to tomatoes. Those B.C. and Custer tomatoes presumably require lots of input--the acres of greenhouses, fuel to heat them, etc., whereas Mexican ones grow outside in the abundant sunshine where their species first evolved. When I gardened in California during my college years, I was amazed how easy it was to grow tomatoes. I could grow those huge beefsteak varieties that I regretfully pass by here because they almost never ripen in time. I had so many I ended up selling my surplus to the local deli for their sandwiches--my first experience in market gardening. I could harvest Roma sauce varieties by the bushel. When I contrast that kind of gardening, which was mostly about keeping up with the deluge, with the fussing and fretting I do to get a few precious fruits to ripen here before late blight strikes, I can see that some disparities in energy input are simply built in.

As for me, I’m going to cook brown rice with chard with some dried tomatoes cured in olive oil, ride my bike over to see my granddaughter, and save the tomato dilemma for another day.

PS--I know next to nothing about hydroponics and it’s entirely possible my assumptions about energy input are a bit off-base. My main memory is from a journalistic trip to Cuba in 1983, when my then-husband and I were shown a hydroponic operation in a Havana backyard. Being that we were then living on a homestead with lots of space and wonderful soil, I focused less on the hydroponics process and more on the dedication of our host, an aristocratic fellow who had converted to the revolutionary cause and devoted his life to food independence for Cuba.
So here’s some info from an expert:

Selling Hydroponics:
Of course, hydroponics has long battled a stigma- that it's the sole province of underground growers intent of producing evil crops. But you, as a successful year-round grower, can tell a more complete story. You can show the public how hydroponics allows growers to grow more crops in less space with fewer resources. How it can provide consumers with exotic or off-season crops that would otherwise have to be shipped thousands of miles to market. And how it's conceivable that someday hydroponics will be utilized to grow large volumes of food sustainably. And, as a result, more cropland will be available for soil and wildlife conservation activities and good old open space.
It seems that when hydroponics is promoted as a partner in our efforts to build a sustainable and prosperous future, new doors of acceptance and possibility are open.
Barbara Berst is a freelance writer and microfarmer living in northwestern Washington State. She is the author of the forthcoming title, Prospering with a 21st Century Micro Eco-Farm, and can be reached at or by writing to her at Island Meadow Farm, 4925 Sharpe Road, Anacortes, Washington 98221.

The Hayes's own website ( explains, among other things, that they power their farm machinery by biodiesel they produce onsite. I've eaten their tomatoes and they are very tasty--also pricy. Once again, it’s complicated.

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