I've long wondered how producing a decent ingredient, one that you can buy in any supermarket, really happens. Take canned tomatoes, of which I probably use 100 pounds a year. It costs $2 to $3 a pound to buy hard, tasteless, "fresh" plum tomatoes, but only half that for almost 2 pounds of canned tomatoes that taste much better. How is that possible?
The answer lies in a process that is almost unimaginable in scope without seeing it firsthand. So, fearing the worst — because we all "know" that organic farming is "good" and industrial farming is "bad" — I headed to the Sacramento Valley in California to see a big tomato operation.
I began by touring Bruce Rominger's farm in Winters. With his brother Rick and as many as 40 employees, Rominger farms around 6,000 acres of tomatoes, wheat, sunflowers, safflower, onions, alfalfa, sheep, rice and more. Unlike many Midwestern farm operations, which grow corn and soy exclusively, here are diversity, crop rotation, cover crops and, for the most part, real food — not crops destined for junk food, animal feed or biofuel. That's a good start.
On an 82-acre field, tomato plants covered the ground for a hundred yards in every direction. Water and fertilizer are supplied through subsoil irrigation — a network of buried tubing — which reduces waste and runoff and assures roughly uniform delivery along the row. (In older, furrow-irrigated fields — in which ditches next to the rows of plants are flooded with water from a central canal — tomatoes at the ends of rows suffer.)
The tomatoes are bred to ripen simultaneously because there is just one harvest. They're also blocky in shape, the better to move along conveyor belts. Hundreds of types of tomatoes are grown for processing, bred for acidity, disease resistance, use, sweetness, wall thickness, ripening date and so on. They're not referred to by cuddly names like "Early Girl" but by number: "BQ 205."
I tasted two; they had a firm, pleasant texture and mild but real flavor, and were better than any tomatoes — even so-called heirlooms — sold in my supermarket.
I mounted the harvester, a 35-foot-long machine that cuts the vine underground and lifts it into its belly, where belts and sensors return dirt, vine, root and green tomatoes to the soil. (All this material is either turned back into the soil or left for sheep to graze on.) Two people on each side sort the continual stream of tomatoes manually before a conveyor transfers the tomatoes by chute to a gondola. When one gondola is full (it holds 25 tons), it's replaced by another. This way, Rominger can harvest around 20 acres in a 24-hour period: 1,000 tons. He estimates his cost at $3,000 per acre and hopes for a $500 profit on each. "Of course," he told me, "sometimes I have a field that collapses on me, and I lose $500."
Fifty years ago, tomatoes were picked by hand, backbreaking piecework that involved filling and lugging 50-pound boxes. Workers had few rights and suffered much abuse, as did the land: Irrigation and fertilizer use were more wasteful, and chemicals were applied liberally and by the calendar, not sparingly by need.
Although the mechanical harvester was controversial when it was first introduced — the United Farm Workers fought its use, fearing it would cost jobs — it revolutionized the industry. (Its impact has been compared to that of the cotton gin.) Yields have more than doubled since the 1960s, and California now produces almost all the canned tomatoes and paste in the United States and more than a third of the world's. For 12 to 14 weeks every summer, growers are harvesting 24/7.
The canneries also operate nonstop. My next visit was to Pacific Coast Producers, a co-op down the road. It packs for Walmart and other major chains. Imagine all the tomatoes you've ever seen, multiplied by a thousand, and you begin to get some idea of the lineup outside PCP, which in a 24-hour period may go through 300 gondolas, holding 7,500 tons all together.
At PCP, workers first random-sample the tomatoes in an elaborate process that determines both where on the processing line the tomatoes wind up (an algorithm decides which fruit from which gondolas to combine for the best-tasting sauce, for example) and the exact amount the growers are paid for that load. This year, it's somewhere around 3.5 cents per pound; if you're wondering what percentage of the price of the canned tomato you buy goes to the farmer, I'm figuring it's around 2.
The cannery itself is a whirlwind of moist, intense heat and subway-level noise. At peak times, PCP employs more than 1,000 workers. My liberal heart was bleeding at the thought of minimum wage for this tough work — some (not all) of these workstations are as unpleasant as any I've seen — but the plant is unionized. So, according to a PCP spokesman, the average wage is about $17 an hour, and there are benefits.
It's far from paradise, but it isn't hell either. The basic question is this: Are the processes and products healthy, fair, green and affordable?
Workers in the fields have shade, water and breaks; they're not being paid by the piece. Workers in the plants are not getting rich, but they're doing better than they would working in the fields, or in a fast-food joint.
Rominger is managing his fields conscientiously and, by today's standards, progressively. He's also juggling an almost unimaginable array of standards set by the state, by PCP and other processors, and even by his customers, who may say things like, "What are you doing about nitrate runoff?"
The canner PCP is running what appear to be safe and clean production lines while producing close-to-"natural" tomato products that nearly anyone can afford.
Oddly, affordability is not the problem; in fact, the tomatoes are too cheap. If they cost more, farmers like Rominger would be more inclined to grow tomatoes organically; to pay his workers better or offer benefits to more of them; to make a better living himself.
But the processed tomato market is international, with increasing pressure from Italy, China and Mexico. California has advantages, but it still must compete on price. Producers also compete with one another, making it tough for even the most principled ones to increase worker pay. To see change, then, all workers, globally, must be paid better, so that the price of tomatoes goes up across the board.
How does this happen? Unionization, or an increase in the minimum wage, or both. No one would argue that canned tomatoes should be too expensive for poor people, but by increasing minimum wage in the fields and elsewhere, we raise standards of living and increase purchasing power.
The issue is paying enough for food so that everything involved in producing it — land, water, energy and labor — is treated well. And since sustainability is a journey, progress is essential. It would be foolish to assert that we're anywhere near the destination, but there is progress — even in those areas appropriately called "industrial."
© 2013 New York Times News Service