Tomato Troubles

first tomatoes from the garden

first tomatoes from the garden

August and September are the months when tomatoes are usually plentiful and inexpensive, and I put up lots of canned and dried ones for the winter. With that in mind, I optimistically brought a lot of extra bags with me to the Union Square Greenmarket yesterday. I was doing a food preservation demo for NYBG from 10-2, and figured that on my way home I’d pick up some cheap, peak season tomatoes.

But there weren’t any cheap tomatoes. There weren’t many tomatoes at all. There were beefsteak varieties and yellow tomatoes, and one or two heirlooms, but nothing like the variety (or low prices) I’d been hoping for.

I’d thought it was bad when a freakin’ Brooklyn squirrel started eating the Black Krim heirloom tomatoes in my garden just before they were perfectly ripe. As some of you have heard me exclaim in the past, I am not opposed to squirrel stew. But it turns out that pesky squirrel may be the least of my tomato troubles.

This past week farmer Ted Blomgren wrote in our CSA newsletter that one of his three tomato fields has been hit by the dreaded blight that is sweeping through the Northeast. He’s teased us with a few token tomatoes, but it looks like we won’t get much more than that.

The center aisle of the Park Slope Food Coop in August is usually tomato heaven, but there was only one cart devoted to tomatoes when I was there a few days ago.

And in yesterday’s New York Times, Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant wrote that his farmer at Stone Barns has lost most of his tomato crop and that throughout the Northeast during the past couple of months  “…organic farmers were forced to make a brutal choice: spray their tomato plants with fungicides, and lose organic certification, or watch the crop disappear. Even for farmers who routinely spray, or who reluctantly spray precautionary amounts, this year’s blight lowered yields. (Fungicides work only to suppress the disease, not cure it.) As one plant pathologist told me, ‘Farmers are out there praying and spraying.’)” You can read his full piece, which includes some interesting points about biodiversity and the interconnectedness of gardens and farms, here.

So far the handful of tomato plants I have in my garden are doing okay, and I’ve formed a temporary truce with the squirrel based on bribery (he likes bread crusts). But it doesn’t look like I’ll be canning nearly as many tomatoes as I have grown accustomed to having on hand over the winter.

That fact brings up locavorian choices.

If I had the extra cash, I could just fork over the higher price for the local tomatoes that are surviving this year’s blight, and put up as many jars as I’m used to but at a higher cost.

Or I could decide that since we had a bad tomato year here, I’ll compromise my local foods commitment out of “necessity” and it’ll be Muir Glen’s canned organic (mostly from California-grown) this winter.

Or I could decide that I’m going to rethink my winter menus and not include as many tomato-based sauces in them because of this year’s blighted crop. That is the choice I’m going with because it not only keeps my diet local, it is honest to what is going on agriculturally in my area. Mind you, I’m still going to eat and dry and can every affordable local tomato I can get my hands on between now and first frost.

Fortunately, other harvests are going gangbusters this year. I’ve already got the four pounds of elderberries Ellen needs to make wine picked and de-stemmed, and there are lots more on the way.


On the food preservation front, I may not have put up many tomatoes yet, but the pickled carrot


and dilly bean recipes I demonstrated at the Greenmarket are lining up nicely on my shelves (I’ll be doing another food preservation demo at Union Square this coming Weds. from 10-1 if you’d like to stop by).

And the wild edibles keep coming in, including the first blackberries. (One more  plug: I’m leading a foraging walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Saturday 15th. You can get more info or register here).

My CSA contract is that I share the risk with my farmer as well as the harvest. My commitment to local food, including but also  beyond my CSA share, means that what happens to my region’s crops happens to me.

So…what else will be good on pasta this winter?


Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

One response to “Tomato Troubles”

  1. acmeplant says:

    News of this late blight has been brewing for over a month among Coop Extension agents on the east coast and I’ve been waiting to see how far it will spread. Last week our CSA farmer said she’d had to plow under all their tomatoes and some potatoes (it’s a Phytopthera fungus, essentially the same as the fungus that caused the great potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century). No CSA tomatoes for us this year. Combine that with the lower yields from our own plants, due to rain and cool temps, and we’re talking minimal maters. Michael is encouraging me to focus on the bounty (great mushroom harvest, good blackberries), and I’ve started canning new vegetable combos instead of my usual ratatouille. We’ll remember 2009 as the year of no tomatoes. And hopefully 2010 will bring a better crop.

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