There are often tomatoes there- sometimes just a couple, sometimes little mountains of them- spilled as trucks, piled high with the bright red gems, bank too hard or slow down in a hurry. Areas with large stains across the whole road and piles of tomatoes on both margins point to a truck that needed to stop, or speed up, in a hurry. I can just imagine the wave of red, shiny fruit cascading down over the front of the truck's cab- the trucker himself probably using some choice vocabulary for whatever car made him hit the brakes.
It turns out, I've moved to the tomato-producing capital of the country. California produces between 96% and 99% of the processing tomatoes consumed in the United States, and also produces plenty of cherry, beefsteak, and heirloom varieties for fresh consumption. Go to the farmers markets which are so abundant in this region, and you'll see a myriad of differently colored and shaped toms.
It's really fascinating to look into the history of foods. Plants, like animals, are often native to certain areas of the world- and virtually all of the crops that we consume today were at some point and place domesticated from wild species. Apples are from Asia, blueberries from North America, peanuts are from South America, watermelons are from Africa... the list goes on. Even the humble tomato has an interesting past.
If you had to choose a cuisine most associated with the tomato- what would you pick? Off the top of my head, I would have probably chosen Italian purely for the range of 'red sauces' that I've enjoyed over pasta and on pizzas. If you thought Mexican though, you were spot on. The tomato is originally from South America and is thought to have first been domesticated by either the Incas or Aztecs, with historians generally leaning toward the Aztec theory.
The tomato's place as a cultural vegetable has been sealed in New Jersey where it is officially the state vegetable. Ohio and Tennessee have declared the tomato as their state fruit. Arkansas hasn't made a call on the classification of the tomato, and has declared it as the state's fruit/vegetable. The poor tomato is having a bit of an identity crisis. California hasn't claimed a state vegetable, New York senators are duking it out between the onion and corn.
[By the way, the whole idea of declaring certain items as symbols of a state is highly entertaining. I know generally not to trust wikipedia, but this list of US State foods is worth a read. Some states feel the need to declare a state muffin (New York= apple, Massachusetts= corn, Minnesota=blueberry) or a state snack food (Illonois= popcorn), and Louisiana even had trouble deciding between two state jellies. The state dessert of Maine is the blueberry pie, but only if made from Maine blueberries. What's the official blue berry of North Carolina? Why, it's the blueberry!] Anyway... back to tomatoes...
Amazingly, in the 1994 book 'The Tomato in America: Early history, culture and cookery' Andrew Smith reports that Americans then were consuming an average of 18 pounds of fresh tomatoes and 70 (!) pounds of processed tomatoes each per year! (Based on a figure of 12 million tons of tomatoes being consumed annually at the time- today, California produces over 12 million tons of processed tomatoes and .49 million tons of fresh tomatoes). I wonder how this figure stacks up to today's heirloom mad crowds. I also wonder if this figure takes into account food waste, which can be up to 40% of food.
Here in California, the majority of tomatoes grown are bound for processing (255,000 acres for processing tomatoes, 35,500 acres for fresh tomatoes). Generally, these are low-acid tomatoes that are bred to have a relatively thick skin; which allows 300,000 tomatoes to be piled high into trucks without crushing the bottom layer of fruit (it even explains why the tomatoes I spot on the side of the highway are usually whole and not just a splattered red mess). According to the USDA, California also produces about 1/3 of the country's fresh tomatoes, with Florida producing another 1/3 and a few mid-Atlantic states making up the rest. In California, the increase in tomato production and mechanization of working and harvesting the fields has led to a general increase in field size and decrease in number of farms. To be profitable, processing tomato farms need to be big.
Because of the tomato's importance as a production vegetable in California, we are trying to work out ways to measure the economic role of wild birds in this crop. It turns out that this will be quite a challenge, because production tomatoes in this area are generally worked quite a lot by tractors and field hands (meaning that putting our exclosures up in fields might be too much of a hassle for farmers, even though we will design them to be as out-of-the-way as possible), and because of a very low tolerance for pest damage to the crop (meaning that even if birds have the potential to control insect pests, we may not be able to detect it due to the masking effect that pesticide use might have). There is also little known about whether birds even use tomato fields for foraging, and whether birds cause much damage to the crop themselves (this isn't well known for most crops- which is why we're doing this study!) We're still working on figuring out if and how we can incorporate tomatoes into our study- and I definitely still have plenty to learn about this interesting fruit/vegetable. Keep an eye out for future posts about tomato pests, pollinators, growing conditions, and varieties. Yum!
This New York Times Op-Ed piece by Mark Bittman has drawn some criticism from the heirloom tomato fans, but is an interesting read on the importance, tastiness, and improving worker conditions of processing tomatoes.
The United Nations has a few good facts and figures sites- mainly this one at UCTAD
This website- which is actually called 'Tomatoes are evil'- is vastly entertaining.