Over the years one of the questions we have heard most often at the BFM is, “Where are the tomatoes?” The answer is really quite simple. All the produce found at the BFM is grown right here in WV and as you can see in the chart below WV grown tomatoes are only available from July thru October. And it’s not just tomatoes, of course. Peruse the chart a little further and you can see that, while there is a wide variety of produce grown in WV thru the course of the four seasons, most is here today and gone tomorrow. But that’s what makes eating seasonally anything but boring.
But getting back to tomatoes and their seasonality I’ve learned that, as with most produce, special care has to be taken to keep the crop on schedule. One important thing I learned is how tomatoes ripen. While many plants convert light into sugar in order to grow (you do remember photosynthesis from grade school, don’t you?), tomatoes actually use heat to grow. This is because the heat (ideally between 65 to 70°F) helps tomatoes produce ethylene gas which in turn helps them to ripen. Actually, many fruits ripen this way such as bananas, peaches, and avocadoes. But too much high heat and humidity can cause many problems for the tomato including blossom drop, yellow shoulder, and leaf curling.
And here’s the rub. Tomatoes bought at a Farmers Market go through this process naturally using their own self-produced ethylene. On the other hand most mass-market tomatoes that come from California, Florida, or Mexico have actually been harvested at their mature green stage since they are firmer at this stage and therefore easier to handle without bruising. They are then artificially exposed to ethylene either in a storage facility or within the container in which they are shipped across the country. By the time they reach their destination they are a beautiful red. Ripe, yes, but as tasty and nutritious as a tomato purchased from a local farmer?
I, for one, believe that we have been “marketed” into thinking that the artificially ripened tomato is the best we can get when in actuality we have been eating them for so long that we really don’t know the difference. Of course, if you have been eating your own home-grown tomatoes your whole life you DO know the difference.
My challenge for you over the next month or so as the real-deal tomatoes start appearing at the Market is to perform a blind taste test between a Market-purchased tomato and a store-bought tomato. I think you already know what the results of that test will be.