Lucy Neely: Crazy about ‘maters

From Lucy Neely
The Gardens Project

I felt like I needed to buckle down and really write some news, instead of just musings. I asked myself, ‘what’s the news right now? What’s happening?’ It only took a short moment: ‘Ah hah! Tomatoes!’

What is it about tomatoes? What makes them arguably the most popular vegetable plant with United States of American home gardeners? What makes them hold such a place in our hearts and minds? And what is the state of tomatoes in Mendocino County and in Ukiah?

Mendocino County Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar estimates that 40% of households in Inland Valley Mendocino County have at least one tomato plant. Ukiah Mayor Benj Thomas estimates that 30-40% of households in Ukiah have at least one tomato plant.

Scott Cratty, manager of the Ukiah Farmers Market and co-owner/operator of the Westside Renaissance Market (WRM), the most local food store in Ukiah – says that a lot of people won’t come to the Farmers Market until there are tomatoes. Cratty theorizes that tomatoes symbolize summer, abundance, and eating dinner outside. Melanie Underhill, an AmeriCorps VISTA with First 5, points out that she can really tell the difference between a fresh tomato and a not fresh tomato, more so than with other vegetables. Is the tomato the symbol of the glory and importance of fresh food?

Linegar tells me that tomatoes are technically a berry (as are grapes) and that Inland Mendocino County has “some of the best tomato growing conditions in California. But for quality, not for mass production.” Currently, the only tomato growers in Mendocino County are small mixed vegetable farms that grow tomatoes as one of their crops. Linegar estimates that 300 total acres are collectively planted in tomatoes in Mendocino County, with 100 acres for tomatoes that go to market (I think these figures are too high, but he is the ag commissioner…).

Cratty was unaware of any value added tomato products adding their value in Mendocino County, and he would be the man to know. The closest pasta sauce comes from Napa and Sonoma. Cratty describes how individuals come into the WRM with dreams of starting a small business, like making pasta sauce, and are deterred by the bureaucratic and financial hoops they will have to leap through.

At the peak of tomato season at the Ukiah Farmers Market last year, there were ten to twelve vendors collectively bringing thirty to forty varieties to the market.

The Ukiah Natural Foods Coop is currently selling about three cases of tomatoes a day. During the winter months, their tomato sales increase. Right now, the Coop has four tomato varieties from local farms, mostly cherry tomatoes. Their slicers are from CA at large, and their Romas are from the mysterious CA/MX. As winter comes, their tomato source migrates farther and farther afield.

Safeway has ten kinds of tomatoes right now. I couldn’t tell if the words on the packaging were the brand names or the varieties of tomatoes. The tomatoes come about evenly from California at large and Mexico, with an occasional appearance from Canada. There are no local tomatoes at Safeway.

The Westside Renaissance Market has about a half dozen varieties of tomatoes from four farms in Mendocino County.

Judy at the produce department at the Coop tells me that, as someone who tastes all the tomatoes at the store, she can definitely tell a difference in quality relative to the distance the tomato has traveled. “Local is better,” says Judy. “A lot more flavor.” She describes how the farther away the tomato comes from, the more green they pick them, and that the Coop sometimes has to turn tomatoes away because they arrive too green.

The tomatoes at the WRM and Safeway are about the same price, with the WRM actually a little cheaper.

People are crazy about tomatoes. Mendocino County has some of the best quality-tomato growing conditions in California. Currently, there are only quite small-scale tomato producers in the County, and there are no value added tomato products made in Mendocino County. This is all while people are struggling to find gainful employment and meaningful work.

Might there be a production niche somewhere in Tomato Land for Mendocino County?
See also Mark Bittman: A Season’s Last Sauce