“Try your luck at Table Mountain,” said the other fellow.
We were in line at Coastal Tractor in Gilroy. The clerk was searching in back for a set of spider gears for my cultivating rig. The two men turned to me.
“I don’t gamble in casinos,” I said. “I plant tomatoes in the second week of April.”
It wasn’t a very good joke, but they got it. Farmers in our area that planted tomatoes in the first week of April this year lost them to a hard freeze. Along the Central Coast we figure April 15th marks the frost-free date, and we expect mild temperatures from then on. Of course, the frost free date is not a natural law, like gravity. I’ve planted tomatoes on April 15th and lost them to an “unseasonable” cold snap on the 17th. Plant tomatoes early and there’s a chance your early harvest will fetch higher prices. But if unsettled weather slaps you down and kills your plants, you’re one of April’s fools.
When I worked at Star Route Farm, in Bolinas, in the early eighties, we used to find arrowheads in the fields left behind by the Miwok. Once I found a round piece of clam shell when I was picking lettuce. A visiting archeologist from U.C. Berkeley showed me how the edges of the shell had been filed smooth, and he speculated that the piece was a gambling token, like a poker chip. I don’t like to gamble, but Indian gaming has been going on in California for a long time.
Farming can be risky, but the fun of casino gambling comes from the perceived potential of “winning big.” When I sold my produce in farmers’ markets I learned how many consumers want things early. The first warm day of spring provokes a mass appetite for Caprese salad, and the public swarms the markets looking for tomatoes and basil. But betting the ranch on early tomatoes to satisfy shoppers seems stupid to me now. I’ve tried.
I used to set my plants out in mid March, and cloak the rows with plastic sheeting stretched over hoops of pipe. It was an expensive procedure, and a lot of work. I fretted that my plants would freeze through the plastic. I lost sleep worrying that wind would knock down my hoop houses. I feared the rain because excessive moisture stimulates fungus. And even though the hoops and plastic allowed me to harvest on the early side, I still had to compete for the early sales with tomato growers that farmed in heated green houses or came from Southern California. The risk I ran of losing my early crop wasn’t worth the payback, and I felt lousy about creating a lot of plastic garbage.
Before that, when I was a partner in Happy Boy Farms, we grew winter tomatoes in a heated greenhouse. Our tomatoes were certified organic, and we pioneered the culture of hothouse tomatoes using only organic fertilizers and beneficial insects, instead of the typical conventional greenhouse regimen of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. We planted the seeds in August, turned on the heaters when the nights cold in the fall, and by April we were picking. I was satisfied, even surprised, by the quality of the fruit we grew, and the greenhouse allowed us to keep our crew working throughout the winter. But even then, over ten years ago, energy was expensive. We didn’t make much money. I was unhappy about it at the time, so I quit, but now I’m glad I got out of hothouse tomatoes when I did. Not only is it be hard to pay for fuel now, it’s also difficult to justify the use of so much heating oil to feed the public’s impatience, when tomatoes can be grown outside in the summer using only the sun if we wait.
The cheapest out of season tomatoes usually come from fields in the south, where it’s warm. Right now, most of the early spring fresh tomatoes in our markets come from Mexico. I’ve grown tomatoes in Mexico, too. Before I farmed at Happy Boy Farms, I helped my friend, Greg, set up a tomato farm near Todos Santos on the Pacific Coast in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. My role in the farm was minimal, but I learned a lot.
It was early winter, 1994, when Greg and I drove south. We didn’t plan on stopping until we saw people picking red ripe fruit. Then we’d looked for a farm he could buy. Going over Pacheco Pass the hills were green and we had the wind shield wipers on. The rain beat down. On I-5, down near Huron, the rain stopped, but the fields were empty and muddy. Outside of San Diego the soil was dry, but the tractors were only just starting to work up beds for tomatoes to be transplanted into. We crossed the line at Tijuana.
In the Valle de San Quintin, south of Ensenada, we saw farm workers staking young tomato plants with crooked sticks cut from the thorny brush in the surrounding desert mountains. South of Molino Viejo Highway One turns away from the coast and we entered the open desert. We didn’t see anything but rocks, brush, and cacti for hundreds of miles. By the time we reached an agricultural zone near Ciudad Constitucion, near Magdalena Bay in the State of Southern Baja, we were so far south there were green tomatoes hanging from bushy vines. But it wasn’t until we got to San Jose Del Cabo at the tip of California, below the Tropic of Cancer, and over a thousand miles south of Watsonville, that we saw red, ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine.
What surprised me most about farming in Mexico was the labor situation. Greg and I thought there would be plenty of locals looking for work. Wrong. There were lots of people working in the tomato fields, but by and large they’d come north from Southern Mexico, from the States of Oaxaca and Puebla, where wages are low. At that time, field workers in Southern Mexico earned the equivalent of five dollars a day. Field hands in the north earned closer to seven dollars for the same day’s work.
I met with Government officials in La Paz to learn the rules of doing business in Mexico. Their employment codes dated from the Revolution and dignified labor by granting to every Mexican worker a fraction of the profits of the business they worked for, above and beyond mere wages. Naturally, the workers’ cut of yearly profits was to be pro-rated, and an employee who’d spent the whole year working for the company was due a larger piece of the profit they’ve helped create than did a newly hired worker. I expressed my amazement about the progressive spirit of this law.
“I’ve just come from a shantytown in a cactus patch where Oaxacan tomato pickers live in shacks made of garbage and share the rusty water that drips from one leaky spigot,” I said. “I don’t see them sharing in the profits of the grower/shippers they work for”
“Of course, some American businessmen may desire the services of a competent lawyer to help them understand our labor code,” said the bureaucrat, and he handed me a business card from a little stack he kept in the top drawer of his desk.
“Off the record,” said the lawyer, “well-intentioned foreign employers that upset the natural equilibrium of life in Mexico by over-paying for labor may find their generosity is misplaced and leads to regrettable consequences.”
I know people make an honorable, honest, and sustainable business out of growing organic tomatoes in Mexico and shipping them north. My friends at Jacobs Farm of Pescadero/ Los Ejidos Del Cabo come to mind. More than anyone, they’re responsible for making organic Sungold cherry tomatoes ubiquitous in upscale U.S. markets throughout the winter months. But growing off-season tomatoes for the U.S. market isn’t for me. Frankly, the way airlines are having problems these days, flying cargoes of tomatoes across the northern hemisphere seems too much of a gamble, anyway. I’m happiest planting tomatoes when the risk of frost is low. I know that if I wait until the soil is warm to plant my tomatoes the sun will probably smile on me, and sometime around the end of June, Mother Nature willing— “ka-ching!”— the tomato patch will come up cherries.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin