Home-Grown Tomatoes

The older I get, the more I appreciate the taste of a good, home-grown tomato. Back in Kentucky the plants went in the ground toward the middle of May with hopes the first fruit would ripen by the Fourth of July. Without buying big plants or cherry tomatoes, the first ripe tomato rarely appear before the end of July. Within a week or two everyone I knew had baskets of tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers they couldn’t eat.

My first summer in Georgia I had a Kentucky-style tomato harvest. Coworkers and neighbors welcomed the surplus. That was almost twenty years ago. Since then, thanks to deer, drought and/or excessive heat,  I’ve had precious little luck growing them.

A few years ago, I bought a good-sized “Cherokee Purple” tomato plant for five dollars at the UGA Horticulture Club sale back in the spring.  ‘Cherokee Purple’ is an heirloom beefsteak-type tomato with over-sized and very tasty fruit. I planted it in a huge plastic pot filled with composted cow manure and the richest dirt I could buy. The pot sat right outside my backdoor in the fenced-in part of the yard. Even so, I sprayed it with Deer-Off.

My little tomato plant didn’t exactly thrive, but it did survive. I harvested four tomatoes about a third the size they should have been. They still tasted good. The fruit ripened long before Independence Day and then puttered out in the heat.

So I drove across town to the Farmer’s Market here in Athens to buy some good tomatoes. A steady stream of Volvos, assorted SUVs, and larger land yachts pulled into the parking lot ahead of me, circling until a space opened up. I even remembered to bring a bag for my purchases.

When I entered the fenced-in area that’s home to the market, the scent of patchouli greeted me. A large, African-American chanteuse with a powerful voice sang soulful ballads to entertain the decidedly upscale crowd. I fought my way through the crowd, dodging kid-filled strollers that cost more than some cars.

The vendors sell baked goods, flowers, home-made jewelry, expensive coffee, flavored teas, t-shirts, and other junk. Enticed by a table filled with ripe fruit from several different varieties of tomatoes, I pushed through to one of the dozen or so veggie stands in the market. I had to wait in line for my turn to make my selections.

I settled on two “Cherokee Purples” and a nameless, sandwich-sized red tomato for BLTs. The casual-but-expensively dressed “farmer” weighed my selections and said, “That will be $9.50.” That’s right. Almost ten dollars for three tomatoes. The “Cherokee Purples” were four dollars a pound. The nameless red was only three dollars a pound. Shut the front door!

The “farmer” in the next booth was hawking fresh blueberries–for seven dollars a pint. I bought a pint at Kroger’s this morning for $1.99. I’d be willing to be you couldn’t tell the difference in a taste test.

Once upon a time, farmer’s markets were a way to buy great produce at bargain prices. Cutting out the middlemen created a win-win situation for farmers and consumers. The farmers made more money than they got from distributors, and consumers paid lower prices than they’d have to pay at the grocery.

Those days are gone. On the plus side, my four-tomato harvest has more than covered the cost of the plant. Two more and I’ll just about break even.

[Update from a 2011 post.}