Where are the tomatoes?

Tomatoes have been largely absent from our market stand this year, with the exception of a few pints of cherry tomatoes over the last few weeks. This is partly by design, and partly by error/misfortune.

First, the design. We decided last year that we weren’t interested in growing very many tomatoes. Like sweet corn and zucchini, tomatoes are something that lots of farmers and gardeners grow, and so are far more subject to competition and gluts that push down prices. For example, last weekend at market featured multiple stands with tables upon tables of tomatoes the growers were desperately trying to sell at discount prices. That’s not our idea of making a living. So this year we dropped slicer (round) tomatoes entirely from our plans, and chose to grow only cherry tomatoes and sauce tomatoes, in moderate amounts.
We’ve done well with our cherry tomatoes in the past, growing six colorful heirloom varieties that produce a beautiful and tasty mix that customers loved. So this year we planned many beds of these. In addition, we like good heirloom sauce tomatoes better than slicers, even for eating, because they’re meatier and less mushy. Our favorite variety, Opalka, has a flavor as good as any slicer we’ve eaten. So we planned a block of sauce tomatoes as well, intending to have enough to put away for ourselves for the winter and maybe to sell some extras if they had a good season.
Now for the error/misfortune. The tomato year got off to a bad start when almost all our indoor starts developed an odd disease that stunted and/or killed them before they were ready to go out. The symptoms were similar to damping off in that plants died when the stem pinched off near the soil line, but this disease affected more mature plants at warmer temperatures than is typical of damping off. Our research suggests it was a fungal disease, though we’ll probably never know the specific identity of the disease or why exactly it caused us so much trouble this year in particular. In retrospect, we identified a number of factors that might have contributed, such as overwatering, insufficient air circulation, and growing shelves that could have been cleaned more thoroughly. Or perhaps potting soil or contaminated seed are to blame. In any case, by the time we realized the seriousness of the problem, we were already weeks behind.
Keep in mind that we always get a late start on tomato season anyway due to our microclimate in this narrow valley. We get frosts up to a month later than higher elevations in Boone County, and sure enough had one in mid-May this year. Any tomatoes are started late and go out late to begin with, so when several rounds of disease hit the seedlings, it really set us back. Finally, in desperation, we just started direct-seeding tomatoes in the beds and transplanting the few survivors regardless of size and health. Frankly, the direct-seeded tomatoes have done fantastically, far out-performing our transplants. There’s a good chance we’ll direct-seed a lot more next year, possibly under plastic cover to extend the season. They’re much healthier and had no transplant shock, while costing us far less in labor and materials.
It hasn’t helped that this year has been abnormally cool and wet, largely lacking the mid-90s and above that tomatoes love. So a slow start combined with slow growth means that our plants didn’t even start producing until a few weeks ago, and the fruits are slow to mature in the continued cool weather. It was in the mid-40s here Saturday night, which does not please tomatoes one bit. Finally, the wet weather has encouraged the spread of fungus, which is marching up the plants and slowly killing them off. We’re not the only folks having these problems, judging from conversations at market.
So all these factors mean our tomatoes are a near-bust. We’ve never had more than 5 pints of cherry tomatoes on the stand at one time, when we intended to have buckets. Our sauce tomatoes, primarily intended for our winter supply, have been maturing so slowly that we’ve gotten fairly worried about being able to preserve any meaningful quantity, much less sell any. Finally, we decided to bite the bullet and ensure our winter tomato supply by buying 80lb of canning tomatoes from our friend Bob Teerlinck at Sunny Acres Farm, who runs a very clean and trustworthy farm. Joanna spent most of Saturday (while I was at market) canning these, and at the end of a long day we ended up with 28 quarts of tomatoes and tomato juice, a good start toward a winter supply. Now, whatever yields we get off our tomatoes can be used as we need, knowing there’s this background supply put up.
The best lesson from all this is that we love direct-seeding tomatoes. Not starting them indoors saves a lot of time and money on potting soil, lights, watering, care, and so on. Given that we never try to have early tomatoes anyway, it makes sense for us to try more direct-seeing next year and keep our costs and bother down on a product that’s important but not integral to our sales. We’ll see what happens.

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