TOMATOES AND PROGRESS
by Virginia Postrel • Apr 6, 2004 at 4:16 pm
If progress is so obvious, why do tomatoes taste so bad? For as long as I can remember, the contrast between delicious tomatoes out of the garden and the rubbery, tasteless variety in supermarkets was Exhibit A in the case against large-scale agriculture. In the early '90s, a biotech company tried to genetically engineer a good tomato. They attracted a lot of hostility from the likes of Jeremy Rifkin but ultimately failed in their quest.
Over the last couple of years, however, delicious tomatoes have hit the supermarkets--in miniature form. Where did these grape tomatoes come from? And could anything that tastes so good actually be low in calories? As I was wolfing some down like candy last night, I wondered about these questions and, using Google, found the story behind them, a long feature by Carole Sugarman of the WaPost. I suspect no one read it at the time (check the date) but it's well worth a read now. The story has all the elements of a contemporary business yarn--globalization, intellectual property disputes, secretive business deals--but no new-fangled biotech. It's all old-fashioned grafting, upsetting to Marvell's mower but no bit deal to today's bio-Luddites. Here are some excerpts:
In a few weeks, when most of the locally grown tomatoes disappear, there will still be hope for the brisk-weather salad. A juicy beefsteak may be hard to come by, a pint of farmers' market cherry tomatoes may be scarce, but commercially grown grape tomatoes -- the bite-size sugary fruit that has gone from novelty to commodity -- will be in abundance.
"Meteoric," is how Tom Mueller, director of sales and marketing for Six L's Packing Co., Inc., an Immokalee, Fla., grower, describes their rise in popularity.
After years of producing flavorless, armor-thick impostors, commercial tomato growers now have a big hit. Grape tomatoes are sold widely, from Wal-Mart to Sutton Place Gourmet. Aside from Florida, they're being grown in Mexico and up and down the East and West coasts, making them available all year long. Six L's, for example, farms grape tomatoes in Virginia in the summer, working its way down the coast to Florida by the end of October.
And their ubiquitousness has changed the landscape of the supermarket produce aisle.
Grapes "have killed the cherry tomato business," says Charles Lester, produce buyer for Giant Food, who added that the chain "very seldom" carries cherry tomatoes anymore. They're "quickly becoming the tomato of choice," says Craig Muckle, spokesman for Safeway, which sells 10 times more grape than cherry tomatoes....
Their success, however, is more than just a triumph of taste. The forces of the global marketplace have growers constantly scrambling to come up with the next great idea. New varieties of produce are being imported "from Holland, Costa Rica, all over the world," says Gene McAvoy, an extension agent with the University of Florida. "If growers don't stay ahead of the pack, they're in trouble. People don't just want a pepper anymore."
They also don't just want a tomato, which is why grape tomatoes hit such a competitive nerve among growers. It also explains how the efforts of a small Florida farmer developed into a legal battle, a seed crisis and eventually an oversupply of the tomatoes.
Andrew Chu, a vegetable grower in Wimauma, Fla., first heard about a grape-shaped variety of cherry tomato in 1996. A Taiwanese friend and specialty produce wholesaler in New York asked Chu to try them, thinking they might appeal to Asian shoppers; they were already being grown in mainland China.
So Chu sent away for the hybrid seeds from Known-You Seed Co., Ltd., in Taiwan. He planted his first crop in the fall of 1996. Asians bought the grape-shaped tomatoes, but the market was limited, says Chu.
"I started thinking about taking them mainstream," he says. So in 1997, Chu Farms packed them up in pint-size plastic clamshells, and shipped them through its regular distributors to the East Coast.
Word travels fast among the farmers, seed salespeople and truck drivers in tomato country. Before long commercial growers such as Six L's and Procacci Bros. got a taste of the fruit and realized Chu was on to something. "I've been in business 53 years and I recognized their potential," says Joe Procacci, chief executive officer of Procacci Bros., who first saw the sweet tomatoes at Chu's initial three-acre plot. He and other growers imported the seeds -- a variety called Santa -- and started planting.
As far as I can tell from online sources, grape tomatoes do in fact have few calories, about 33 in a half cup.