One of my favorite things at the Fallon Food Hub is listening to the stories that our customers and farmer partners share with us about their experiences in food and agriculture. A few weeks ago, I was talking with a new farmer partner about an exciting new tomato hybrid that has been bred for flavor and nutrient content. He asked me about the thickness of the tomatoes skin, and my interest was instantly piqued. The evolution of tomato skin thickness seems like an aspect of agricultural history that is right up my alley!
Come to find out (not surprisingly) the thickening of a tomatoes skin has a direct relationship with both the evolution of industrial agriculture and subsequent rise of the local sustainable food movement. In the mid-1950’s a plant breeder and an engineer based out of the University of California, Davis teamed up on a project to create a machine that could harvest tomatoes. Tomatoes in California’s central valley had historically been picked gently by the hands of migrant farm workers who participated in the Bracero program. For most of the 1950’s the idea of creating a tomato picking machine was laughable within the agricultural community. However, in 1963 rumors began circulating about the end of the Bracero program. Tomato farmers realized that their cheap labor source was going to run dry. At the same time, the team at UC Davis achieved their goal and began production on a mechanized tomato harvester. But a new means of harvesting necessitated a new tomato—one that was thick-skinned enough to withstand rough handling and “vf-145” (a new hybrid tomato) was born.
Within 5 years, almost 100% of California tomato growers had switched to mechanized harvesting. Farmers were growing an abundance of the thick-skinned and easily de-stemmed hybrid tomato that by all accounts was relatively tasteless. The cost of purchasing and maintaining a mechanical tomato harvester was prohibitive, requiring more land and higher levels of production to be profitable. This resulted in a consolidation of the tomato growing market. In the first 5 years after the transition to mechanized harvesting, over 80% of California tomato growers were out of business. Farms got larger, farm worker numbers decreased, and unemployment in the agricultural sector exploded. This was a significant moment in the rise of industrial agriculture. The paradigm shifted for plant breeders and scientists—no longer did they select for characteristics like taste or nutrient density. Necessity dictated that they first consider physical qualities of the fruit relating to how it would pass through the machine.
As a counterpoint to the growth of industrial agriculture in California’s central valley, a group of activists began a legal challenge against UC Davis that would evolve in to a 10-year court battle. As a land grant institution, UC Davis has a mandate under the 1887 Hatch Act that provides federal funds to agricultural research that supports small family farms. While this court case was ultimately unsuccessful, it raised a public debate about agricultural innovation developed at a state university and who were the end beneficiaries of this research. In order to avoid a public relations nightmare, UC Davis founded the Small Farms Center focused on providing education and assistance to low-income and small farms. The public discourse about industrial agriculture and the mechanized tomato harvester in the central valley led to the rise of California’s local food movement, a pre-cursor to the national farm-to-table movement.
Today, we still see the shadow of hybrid vf-145—we eat mechanically harvested tomatoes in our ketchup, canned tomatoes, pasta sauce, and even sliced on our sandwiches. Fortunately, there is another option! Local farmers in Churchill County are selecting their tomato varietals for flavor and nutrient content. Whether heirloom varieties or hybrids bred for flavor, the tomatoes that you will find this summer at the East Center Street Farmers Market, The Fallon Food Hub, and in the Great Basin Basket Farm Share will be nutritious, delicious, and harvested by gentle hands!