Winter tomatoes

Some of you probably know about Backyard Farms. They are a greenhouse farm in Madison, Maine. They grow tomatoes, year round, pick them ripe and ship them to New England stores – places like Whole Foods and Hannaford supermarkets. The Globe wrote about them in 2007. We just discovered them, and we are facing a bit of a dilemma. They are delicious. And we can’t decide whether we should use them.

Now, we don’t really do tomatoes in winter, which is perhaps why it took us so long to find these guys. We decided a long time ago – around the time when Omnivore’s Dilemma came out – to keep our eating and cooking within the bounds of local and seasonal. We have stuck to it closely. But sometimes in the middle of a gray Boston winter one just needs something bright and juicy for dinner, so I picked up a pack of cocktail tomatoes from Backyard at Whole Foods.

Holy smokes, these things are tasty. They are ripe – really ripe, not the fake ripe of a winter supermarket tomato. And I don’t know what cocktail variety they are – the package didn’t say – but the flavor is lovely, a great balance of sweetness and acidity, and there’s a nice juicy meatiness to them. Backyard Farms are also doing a lot of things right. They collect rainwater from their greenhouse roof, which makes for an impressive percentage of their total water use – they claim 90. They swaddle the greenhouse in thermal blankets to reduce heat loss at night. They use real live bees to pollinate and real live wasps instead of insecticide. Their grow lamps are on a timer and only come on when necessary.

But.

But but but.

They are growing tomatoes in Maine in winter. That takes a lot of energy. The greenhouses are heated, to 70-75F, with butane. And their electric bill must be monstrous. Before they expanded from 25 to 42 acres they had 12,000 1000-watt grow lights, which were on all day – 17 hours – in winter. That’s 12,000,000 watts. Think about it for a second. Regardless of how much soy ink they use for printing and biodegradable string for tying the vines, this is not a terribly sustainable way to do things. Not to say that they are making wrong choices – they seem to make many right ones – but that tomatoes and Maine winters were just not meant to be in the same sentence. It is better, no doubt, than shipping tasteless tomatoes from Mexico, but our alternative is not to buy tomatoes from Mexico, it’s to not buy tomatoes at all.

We decided, for now, not to use them. But man, that was a tasty salad.

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4 Responses to Winter tomatoes

  1. Mary says:

    Good for you. Seasonal cooking should be just that. We’ve gotten too used to having whatever we want, when we want it. Frankly, I think waiting for summer tomatoes makes them taste that much more fabulous.

  2. JJ says:

    We have wrestled with this issue for the past few winters in our locavore kitchen as well, and have also concluded that it is not ok to burn that much energy to produce a tropical fruit in Maine in the winter.
    I can offer some consolation, though- Florida field tomatoes will be coming up through the Enterprise East Coast Food Shed really soon
    Hang in there, little tomato!

  3. Amanda says:

    I wonder what kind of grow lights they’re using. There are new LED grow lights out now that use a substantially lower amount of electricity. If you paired those with solar panels it would make a big difference. I think on the whole I’d still rather eat in season foods, but if you just have to have an out of season tomato that isn’t a bad way to do it.

  4. the journeymen says:

    Amanda – They use 1000-watt HID lights, which is what most commercial growers use. They are more efficient in converting energy to light than just about anything else (fluorescents, incandescents, etc), but it’s still a ton of energy. LEDs are definitely more efficient, but they haven’t caught on yet (and after one already invested in an HID system it’s costly to invest in a new LED one!)

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