Why Supermarket Tomatoes Suck
In Vermont, where I live, as in much of the rest of the United States, a gardener can select pretty much any sunny patch of ground, dig a small hole, put in a tomato seedling, and come back two months later and harvest something. Not necessarily a bumper crop of plump, unblemished fruits, but something. When I met Monica Ozores-Hampton, a vegetable specialist with the University of Florida, I asked her what would happen if I applied the same laissez-faire horticultural practices to a tomato plant in Florida. She shot me a sorrowful, slightly condescending look and replied, "Nothing."
"Nothing?" I asked.
"There would be nothing left of the seedling," she said. "Not a trace. The soil here doesn’t have any nitrogen, so it wouldn’t have grown at all. The ground holds no moisture, so unless you watered regularly, the plant would certainly die. And, if it somehow survived, insect pests, bacteria, and fungal diseases would destroy it." How can it be, then, that Florida is the source for one-third of the fresh tomatoes Americans eat? How did tomatoes become the Sunshine State’s most valuable vegetable crop, accounting for nearly one-third of the total revenue generated?
From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective, you would have to be an idiot to attempt to commercially grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The seemingly insurmountable challenges start with the soil itself. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Although an area south of Miami has limestone gravel as a growing medium, the majority of the state’s tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete. "A little piece of loam or clay would go a long way," said Ozores-Hampton. "But, hello? -- this is just pure sand." In that nearly sterile medium, Florida tomato growers have to practice the equivalent of hydroponic production, only without the greenhouses.
Because of the state’s benign weather, disease-causing organisms and insects do not die from the frosts, blizzards, and subzero cold snaps that kill bugs and pathogens every winter in colder growing areas. Basking in the same balmy climate as the state’s active retirees, Florida’s pests, fungi, and bacteria stay vigorous and healthy yearround, just waiting to attack the next crop of tomatoes. Those endlessly sunny winter days that the state’s tourism agency likes to tout in its advertisements also pack high levels of humidity the promoters prefer not to mention. Not so comfortable for humans, humidity is ideal for the growth of blights, wilts, spots, and molds. Hardy native weeds like nut grass ("called that because it can drive you nuts," one farmer told me) can easily out-compete tomato plants. Some weeds are so tough they can punch through plastic mulch laid down to suppress them. The renowned sunshine also means that rain is patchy in the winter months. Because sand retains almost no water, tomatoes have to be irrigated. And even though the daytime skies may be clear and bright, Florida is still in the Northern Hemisphere and days are short in the winter. A tomato growing in South Florida in late December gets only a little over ten and a half hours of sunlight a day, whereas one growing in New Jersey in June gets fifteen hours -- nearly 50 percent more. Shorter days mean less vigorous growth. A tomato trying to grow in Florida also experiences debilitating temperature swings that a tomato in California or Ohio never has to face. As many a disappointed vacationer has learned, a stretch of eighty-five-degree beach days can be broken overnight by one of the notorious cold fronts that frequently blow across the state, dropping temperatures into the forties, thirties, and even lower. Add to all that the occasional hurricane that flattens the staked tomatoes and the all-too-frequent January or February frost that leaves thousands of acres of vines blackened and dead, and you have to ask: Why bother trying to grow something as temperamental as a tomato in such a hostile environment?
The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We’re talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.
In tomato agribusiness’s campaign to defend their crop from the powers that would otherwise destroy a tomato field, Ozores-Hampton, who came from her native Chile to the University of Florida in the mid 1990s to do graduate work, is a key ally. She is an anomaly in the managerial and academic ranks of Florida’s tomato industry. She is not only a woman (rare enough) but an energetic, forceful, extremely fit Latina in her forties who spends her workdays toiling in the hot sun of her tomato test plots in rural areas populated by self-proclaimed red necks and crackers, then hops in her car Friday evenings and spins off to her pied-à-terre in Miami’s trendy South Beach district. Almost every other nonfieldworker I encountered in the tomato business was white, male, and sporting at the very least a few gray hairs and/or nurturing a developing paunch, the type of guy you’d encounter on a Saturday on a golf course or in a bass boat. "They all call me 'the Tomato Lady,'" Ozores-Hampton said. "Everyone knows who that is."
For someone who does not fit the mold of Tomatoland’s Good Ole Boys’ Club, Ozores-Hampton has been given tremendous responsibilities. Her territory encompasses most of the state south of Tampa. She is the only university horticulturalist serving an area that has 180,000 acres of vegetables (more than half the state’s vegetable acreage). That land generates annual revenues of $1.6 billion to farmers. She is so important to the industry that when her postdoctoral work ended, a group of growers approached the president of the cash-strapped University of Florida and offered to help fund her fulltime, tenure-track position for four years. Ozores-Hampton’s specialty is soil nutrients. She studies the cycles of plant, soil, and water interaction to determine the optimal level at which fertilizers should be applied so as to maximize production, leaving as little surplus nitrogen and potassium in the soil as possible. Excess fertilizer is a costly waste for farmers and pollutes groundwater, lakes, and rivers that feed such environmentally delicate habitats as the Everglades and Florida Bay. On the March morning that I dropped into her lab/offices in the university’s Southwest Florida Research & Education Center near Immokalee, several of Ozores-Hampton’s assistants were upending bushel-size plastic tubs of bright green tomatoes onto lab benches. She explained that they were doing evaluations of different varieties that day to see which were the most productive. "It’s the cornerstone of agriculture anywhere in the world," she said. "If you don’t start with the right varieties, you are not going to succeed."
When I told her I had come hoping to gain an understanding of how the tomatoes that find their way into the nation’s supermarkets and fast food outlets are grown, she gestured toward an empty office off to one side of the lab. "You’ve come to the right place," she said, sitting me down as if I were one of her less promising undergrads. "If you want to understand how we grow tomatoes, you have to start at the end of the last harvest, which around here is in April." She explained that during the summer, a farmer can do three things with his land. Some growers put in cover crops like sorghum and sudangrass, which incorporate a little organic material into the soil and out-compete any weeds that spring up. Cover crops also disrupt the cycle of pathogens and nematodes (microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes’ roots) by putting a different species into rotation with what would otherwise be a monocrop -- tomato after tomato after tomato. In addition, cover crops serve to capture and store the nitrogen and other fertilizers left behind after the growing season. Instead of using cover crops, farmers can also simply leave the fields fallow. Weeds come up, and they use the herbicide Roundup to kill the weeds. Still other growers choose to flood the fields, drowning weeds, pathogens, and nematodes.