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I Vow to Stop Complaining About the High Price of Tomatoes

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The price of tomatoes at the farmers market or grocery store can seem mysteriously random. Erratic. All over the place. Truly puzzling.

There are tomatoes imported from Mexico for $1.99 at the bodega around the corner from the Food52 office; there are organic heirlooms for $6 a pound at Mario Batali’s fancy Italian grocery store, Eataly, alongside Romas selling for $2 a pound; and the hydroponic tomatoes on-the-vine from Canada are $3.99 a pound at Fairway. At the Union Square Greenmarket on a recent Saturday, prices among heirloom tomatoes alone ranged from $3 to $5 a pound.

Where do these numbers come from? Why are the prices so different? And when I buy a pound, where is most of that money going?

Prices will vary!
Prices will vary! Photo by Mark Weinberg

So I posed the question to Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, figuring that if anyone had the answer, it would be him.

But that answer, I should have known, does not exist: “It would be impossible to nail down,” he told me. “It depends a lot on the type of tomato [...] Hydroponic, greenhouse production is very different from field production; organic production of course is very different than chemical production, so it’s very hard to draw to one conclusion.”

Tomatoes: They’re complicated. When they arrive at the market in New York in early July, they're often much more expensive than I remember from the year before. Is this pint of local heirlooms really “worth” $8.75?

Whereas I can understand why some produce is costly—fragile berries, the first peas of spring, mangosteens shipped in from Thailand—tomatoes—which are sometimes so cheap!—are a puzzle. How can the same type of fruit sell for less than $2 a pound and actually draw a profit?

But while the pricing behind various types of tomatoes might be confounding to those of us who don’t live and breathe farm economics, “random” it is not. Digging a bit deeper into the various small and large costs farmers incur—and the factors (like weather, imports from neighboring countries, the supply and demand of grocery stores) that affect what they make per acre—offers a glimpse into the deeply complex economic Jenga that farmers play every season, but that, until now, I hadn’t thought enough about.

The prices at the grocery store and market might still make me hesitate—but, taking all of the overwhelming costs into account, what's most surprising is that these tomatoes don’t cost even more.

Let’s start at the smallest level—the local tomato farmer at your farmers market (okay, in this case, our farmers market), who’s probably selling his tomatoes for significantly more than the ones you find at your local supermarket or corner store.

On Tim Stark’s 58-acre Eckerton Hill Farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania, he oversees 40,000 tomato plants out in the field and 1,600 under lightweight covers known as high tunnels (think of these as makeshift, unheated greenhouses). He has a mortgage and insurance on the farm; he has to workers to pay; he has the transportation costs of bringing the tomatoes to the market; he spends between $4000 and $5000 every couple of weeks on the boxes the tomatoes travel in (some of these he reuses, while others go to customers or, more likely, restaurants, who may or may not return them); he pays $1,500 in seeds per year.

But of all these costs, and across various types of growers, “by and far away, the biggest cost involved in tomato production is labor,” Barry Estabrook told me. Unlike tomatoes grown for processing, which ripen at once and can be harvested by machine, fresh tomatoes are hand-picked as the fruits ripen over the season. With such a labor-intensive crop, it means that, “if you’re buying a tomato for $3 a pound, it’s really labor that’s the biggest cost for the farmer.”

At Eckerton Hill Farm, Tim has over 25 workers in the field, planting, tending, harvesting, and then packing his tomatoes. Labor is “just huge,” he said, estimating that he spends $20,000 per week in labor costs, which, last year, totaled $350,000 (and that’s before he takes workers’ comp—insurance that protects laborers in case of injury on the job— into account).

He also employs some of his best workers year-round, harvesting crops that only break even at best, with the purpose of incentivizing the workers he trusts to stay on for the next summer. “If it weren’t for the tomatoes,” Tim told me, “we wouldn’t even do the other stuff.” Because tomatoes are profitable for many small farmers who sell in New York: In a good year, the yield per plant is high; plus, Tim said, tomatoes are heavy—just a couple of his massive heirlooms add up quickly—and he’s noticed that Greenmarket shoppers are willing to buy a lot of them during peak season.

But to ensure that tomatoes do bring a profit, small farms must make every acre—and every plant—count. Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm, an 80-acre farm that also has a stand at Union Square’s Saturday market, relies on workers to trellise, prune, and conduct leaf tests that monitor the plants’ nutrient uptake. With not so much invested in each and every plant, larger farms have some breathing room; but for Zaid, he must prioritize the health and quality of his plants first and foremost—and that means a higher cost per unit.

The tomatoes that require even more manpower than others come at a higher cost: Those little cherry tomatoes? Tim estimates that out of all the tomato-picking done at Eckerton Hill, seventy-five percent is for the cherries. No wonder they’re more expensive; $5 per pint, sometimes more. I could eat them all in one sitting, in 30 minutes, without ever thinking about how long it must have taken for someone to pluck each one.

Beyond labor, there are also losses to account for. Zaid might lose 20% of his delicate, thin-skinned heirlooms during the 200-mile trip from Norwich, New York to Manhattan.

And in the context of all of these costs, from labor to losses to nitty-gritty farm expenses and overhead, farmers like Tim and Zaid have to set a price that will be competitive in the context of the market and that will leave them with something to take home.

Are Farmers Markets Really as Expensive as Everyone Says?
Are Farmers Markets Really as Expensive as Everyone Says?

The way that price is calculated? An organic tomato farmer at the McCarren Park Greenmarket in Brooklyn described walking through the market first thing in the morning to peek at the non-organic prices and make sure his own was not prohibitively higher. And Tim told me that his price has increased only very gradually over the twenty years he’s been in business. When he began to consider his standard of living and the kids he was going to send to college (his daughter just started her freshman year this fall), he “started to think, if I’m going to work like that”—all day, every day, morning to night, late May to late September—”I should make something.”

“For a couple of weeks a year,” when the harvest is good and customers are paying whatever price he sets, “you feel like a fat cat and you’re overcharging,” Tim said. “But those weeks, you’re trying to get ahead, to anticipate for heavy rains next year, or for late blight.”

Photos by James Ransom

As the season—or even the day—goes on, small farmers have the prerogative to adjust their prices accordingly—to sell at a rate that, as Zaid put it, will move the produce but not make a profit. In New York this month, extremely hot temperatures caused a huge number of tomatoes to ripen all at once, which means farmers have more on their hands they can confidently sell. The heirlooms selling for $3 a pound (and advertised as “best price in town”) at the market on a recent Saturday? The farmers at the Locust Grove stand told me they were trying to get rid of them: “We’ve just got to move them.”

But if you’re another kind of tomato grower—one who’s invested in hydroponic facilities for growing tomatoes in high-tech greenhouses year-round—you don’t have the option to set your own price at the retail level. The price per pound probably hovers somewhere between the heirlooms and the Romas, and they’re your most expensive option in the winter.

Hydroponic farmers have to account for labor, as we know, and packaging costs, but also the utilities unique to the greenhouse industry: the energy it takes to keep a 42-acre greenhouse between 70 to 73 degrees year-round, as they do at Backyard Farms in Maine.

“The tomato industry is very volatile,” said Paul Lightfoot, the founder of BrightFarms, a company that finances, builds, and operates greenhouses (currently, three) near supermarkets. Even though BrightFarm’s tomatoes are sold to supermarkets, their business is not large enough to skew prices. “The people setting prices are those who are producing in Canada in the summer and Mexico in the winter (and in some cases, it’s the same companies that operate in both places).”

Hydroponics—The Future of Farming in Detroit?
Hydroponics—The Future of Farming in Detroit?

When Canadian tomato growers are producing deep into the fall and Mexican tomato growers harvest early in the winter, the two seasons overlap, there’s a huge excess of tomato supply, “the bar falls down, and it’s a total mess. A lot of tomatoes will be sold at super-low prices and it’s reflected in the marketplace.” The very-cheap tomatoes you find at store in December are probably a result of an abundance of fruit from Mexico and Canada. And someone, somewhere is paying for it.

Maybe that someone is a relatively small guy, like BrightFarm or Backyard Farms—but it's also large-scale growers in Florida, the state that produces nearly half of the fresh tomatoes in the U.S., at a total value of more than $500 million, and ships them all over the country. It's thanks to Florida that I can have a field-grown domestic tomato that's cheaper than the greenhouse-grown varieties to stir into to my eggs in January. (I know this is not a seasonal behavior; I also know that I must sometimes do it anyway—an act of winter self-care.)

With that kind of market dominance, you’d think that the prices would reflect the cost to farmers. But in reality, Barry explained, these farmers are just as prisoner to the supply and demand of the market as any. "In a way, growing tomatoes commercially is kind of like playing a roulette wheel, he said. "Because you’re competing against, at least in the wintertime, Mexico and greenhouse tomatoes. So if Mexico is having a huge crop, often Florida farmers won’t even harvest—the tomatoes will often just be allowed to rot. They’re waiting for the week when something damages the Mexican crop and their tomatoes will become valuable."

All of these pricing variables mean that, as Barry told me, “unless you’re buying directly from the farmer at the farmers market, the farmer is getting very little of the price that you pay for that tomato. So, with an industrial winter tomato in Florida, the worker may get as little as two cents a pound, but the farmer might only be getting a few dollars a pound.” No one is getting paid much.

Photo by James Ransom

In the words of Reggie Brown, Manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and Exchange, “the retail price has very little to do with the cost to the farmer at all.” Tomato “farmers who are selling to wholesalers”—and this includes the smaller BrightFarms and Backyard Farms of the industry—”are dealing with a completely different system than local farmers who are selling at markets.” The prices are lower, but it’s not on their own accord and in some ways, these farmers are embroiled in a scarier, more amorphous system.

Unlike at the farmers market, where a vendor might lower the price at the end of the day in order to move his produce faster (Tim of Eckerton Hill wants to sell as much as possible in order to deliver the most recently-picked fruit), a large-scale Florida farmer doesn’t have that option: Grocery stores, Reggie told me, have systematically figured out how many tomatoes to stock and at what price. They’ve “learned to manage the profitability of the shelf space they have—to manage the price of the product and know that, at that price, the tomatoes will leave the store.”

“The farmer takes home a very small share of the cost of that tomato when you as a customer buy it in a retail store.” Farmers “just don’t get much of it, even though the grower takes all the risks and invests his capital to produce the crop.”

“It’s an extremely tough business and quite honestly, I’m very concerned that because of import pressures—and the consumers [who] are pretty oblivious to where the tomatoes come from—in the next decade or less, we will lose the capacity to produce these things in the U.S.,” which, as Reggie admitted, is “a scary position to be in.”

What, exactly, are the tough parts? Well, there’s the cost of labor, which Zhengfei Guan, an Assistant Professor at the University of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, estimated was nearly 20% of the approximately $10,000-per-acre operating cost on a Florida tomato farm. Barry Estabrook, whose book Tomatoland was, in part, an exposé of working conditions in the Florida tomato fields, pointed out that the “industry has really cleaned up its act. It’s gone from the most repressive sector of agriculture to one of the most progressive.” (He called the working conditions in Mexico, on the other hand, “hideous.”)

Photos by James Ransom

And then, there are the Florida-specific costs that tomato farmers in New England or growing in greenhouses instead of fields would not likely incur: Like wet years that depress the whole harvest, or rampant, invasive pests, which, according to the Florida Crop/Pest Management Profiles: Tomatoes, account for nearly 25% loss in fresh market tomatoes.

And that means that a significant amount of capital goes to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and fumigants (pesticides applied to soil), too. The 2007-2008 Production Budget for Tomatoes in Southwest Florida shows that the estimated cost for production of one acre accounts for about 40% of all pre-harvest costs. Those aren’t expenses that an organic farmer in New England has to take into account, even if he or she has to manage pests and blight in other ways.

Photo by James Ransom

And then there are the large costs of shipping across the country. The tomatoes that do get shipped, says the Crop/Management Profile, which serves as a guide for farmers, ”must be essentially blemish free to qualify as sellable.” While a local farmer might be able to take a tomato with catface and sell it at the market, a grocery store is not going to stock it. A tomato that doesn't make the cut might be laid to waste in the field or scrapped by the store before it gets to the shelf.

Perhaps the tendency to balk at the price of tomatoes comes down to a wider-reaching demand for perfect-looking produce for as little money as possible.

But to begin to understand, even on a superficial level, everything it takes to get the tomato to its current spot on the supermarket shelf—the labor, the packaging, the transportation, the stakes, the trellises, the list goes on and on—makes low prices even more startling than the high.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

I think about shopping at the farmers market—paying $5 a pound for tomatoes, knowing that it's going directly to the farmer and even then, that he or she may be having a hard time making a profit—and then I start to wonder how a $2-a-pound tomato from the corner store could even begin to cover costs of production. Cheap becomes more alarming than expensive.

So this is my challenge to myself: to think a little more about where my tomatoes come from before complaining about their high price; to question why some are so cheap and who that is benefitting; and to use them well—because so many people did so much work to get them to me.

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Tags: Food Biz, Farmers Markets, Farms