Better Late Than Never

cherry tomatoesIt’s only the beginning of March and a few of my customers are already thinking about summer. “When are you going to have tomatoes?” they ask. We’ve only just planted the seeds in the greenhouse and they haven’t even germinated yet, so it’s too soon for me to begin counting the crates. Of course I could grow hot house tomatoes and be in the middle of my harvest season right now. I’ve done that before. But over the years I’ve changed my ideas about how I should farm, and for the last ten years I’ve followed the same schedule for tomatoes; we sow seeds in early February, transplant the seedlings into the field after the 15th of April when we can reasonably assume that the frost is done for the year, and then we start harvesting at the beginning of August. This production schedule is relatively safe and predictable. I’m no gambler, not in Vegas, not on an Indian Reservation, and not in the field. Other farms often have tomatoes for sale before I do but I won’t do anything special to speed the harvest up. When it comes to tomatoes my philosophy is “Better late than never.”

In 1993, when I farmed with my friend, Greg, we tried to have an early tomato crop by transplanting into the field in early March and protecting the tomatoes from the rain, wind, hail and frost by putting hoops of PVC pipe over the rows and covering them with plastic sheeting. The plastic had slits for ventilation. Results were mixed. The hoop houses were expensive and time-consuming to build. The plastic film caught the raw spring wind like a sail, and we had to anchor the hoop houses to earth during and after every storm. Despite the ventilating slits, conditions inside the hoop houses were moist and breezeless, so we had problems with fungal attack. We had an early tomato harvest that year, and we were able to get a premium price from impatient farmers’ market customers (briefly) for our first crop, but we also had a depressing mess of dirty, torn plastic to throw away in the dump at the end of the summer. I won’t do that again.

In mid-January of 1994 Greg and I went to Mexico to look into growing organic tomatoes for the early market. Our fields in Hollister were waterlogged and the sky was gray when we crossed Pacheco Pass and turned south on I-5. Down in Huron and Five Points on the west side of the San Joaquin the skies were still heavy, but the empty fields were dry. That evening, in the low hills outside of San Diego, we saw tractors preparing ground for the first stateside tomato plantings of the New Year.

At dawn the next day, on the outskirts of Maneadero, south of Ensenada, we saw the first tomato plants in the ground, but they were small, only six inches tall.  Farther south down Mexican Highway 1, in the San Quintin Valley, we saw fields of knee-high tomatoes, but they weren’t in flower. Gangs of workers walked the rows stabbing crooked sticks into the ground to serve as tomato stakes, and other men followed behind unspooling twine and tying the plants up. We jumped back in the truck. Colonet, Camalu, and Colonia Guerrero slipped past; more dusty tomato fields, garbage blowing in the wind, and the occasional rooster strutting down the centerline of the highway, challenging fate and traffic.

Past Rosario the highway turns inland and enters the clean, open desert. We drove south. It wasn’t until we crossed the Tropic of Cancer outside of Todos Santos in the State of Baja California Sur, nine hundred miles later and almost 1,400 miles south of Hollister, that we saw the first red tomatoes hanging on the vine. Land was for sale. Greg found a ranch, a thirty hectare field crisscrossed with power lines and watered with an irrigation canal and a well. He bought the land, and I helped him set the farm up. I was proud of the label I dreamed up– Star of Baja– a tomato in the sky like a sun shining over a desert landscape with the star-shaped calyx on its face.

America has an enormous appetite for winter tomatoes but the vegetables that make good rotational crops are not in demand, so Mexican farmers grow tomatoes year after year in the same fields. This means the soil-born pathogens that affect tomato production multiply until the soil is so contaminated that it has to be sterilized with Methyl bromide to be usable at all. Greg’s land had been fallow, and the soil was clean and alive, but tropical pests like leaf miner were alive too. The business of farming starts with knowing the market, but good agricultural practices take into account what the land can do naturally. A business with a truly organic perspective meets its challenges by growing solutions from the ground up, not mandating results from the top down. Greg and I had a lot of learning to do.

Doing business in Mexico wasn’t easy. There weren’t ready sources for organic fertilizers, packaging materials, or farm equipment. There were farm supply stores, but they couldn’t afford to maintain an inventory of even the most obvious items, like drip tape, PVC pipe fittings, or aluminum gate valves. We could order what we needed, but delivery dates were uncertain, and some things might not arrive at all, so we had to ship most of what we needed down from Alta California. Because Baja is a tourist destination there are plenty of jets flying out of San Jose del Cabo, and you’d imagine it would be simple to book freight to any number of American cities, but the Mexican Airlines were indifferent to the notion of hauling cargo, and US carriers were over-booked.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about farming in Mexico was the labor situation. Greg and I had imagined that since so many Mexicans come to the United States to work that if we went to Mexico we’d have a ready, local labor pool to draw from. But Baja Californians don’t want to work on farms any more than Alta Californians do. I saw lines of workers alongside the highway before dawn, shuffling off to get a day’s work done in the fields before the temperatures got hellish, but they were migrant Oaxacans from Southern Mexico where prevailing wages were only five dollars a day. Employers in Baja paid as much as seven dollars a day, so people came north to work, hoping to save enough money to buy their way across the international border into the land of seven dollars an hour. The Oaxacans lived in a squalid camp in the middle of the desert. Their huts were roofed with dried palm leaves, pieces of cardboard, and scraps of galvanized iron sheeting. There was a single rusty pipe and a water tap that dribbled.

Mexico had plenty of arcane regulations for companies to comply with, but enforcement of the labor code managed to be both lax and arbitrary at the same time. The same officials who threatened dire consequences to any employer who disrespected the dignity of the workers freely handed out the business cards of lawyers that could “pre-solve” labor problems. The contrast between the hard working Oaxacan tomato pickers and the narcotic torpor of the authorities was stark. There are good companies doing good work in Mexico, and if it wasn’t for export business a lot of poor Mexicans would have no work at all, but I found growing off-season tomatoes in Mexico to be a depressing affair, and I was glad that it wasn’t my business.

Then, during 1996 and 1997, Greg and I grew organic winter tomatoes in a hot house here in California. This was an interesting project too, but even then energy costs were prohibitive. Greg and I went our separate ways after that and as I watch fuel prices fluctuate wildly I’m glad that when Julia and I started Mariquita Farm in 1998 I didn’t continue indoor tomato production. I had to try everything else first, but I’ve decided to plant tomatoes outside when the soil is warm, let the sun coax the fruit to ripeness, and deliver the harvest to my neighbors in its own time.

“Well, finally,” you might say.

But I say, “Hey, better late than never!”

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

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