• crop type: row
• size/shape: 4-6 feet feet tall; compact bushes or sprawling, staked vines
• leaves: long and draping with many small, deeply lobed leaflets; dark to dusty green
• flowers: up to 1 inch, 6 petals, yellow
• clues: shaggy-looking, hairy stems
• major counties: Fresno, San Diego, San Joaquin, Merced, Stanislaus, Yolo, Kings
• area harvested: 344,000 acres
• production: 13.8 million tons/year
• value: $1.5 billion/year
• fun fact: Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruit. But legally, they’re vegetables, according to a 1893 Supreme Court ruling that forced tomato importers to pay the tariff then levied on vegetables but not fruit.
When the Spanish tasted tomatoes in South America in the 1500s, they enjoyed them so much that they spread them all around the world. This savory fruit grows spectacularly well in Mediterranean climates, so it’s no surprise that California is the nation’s number two producer of fresh tomatoes and the world’s top producer of the processing tomatoes that are made into paste.
It may be a bit unnerving, however, to learn that tomatoes are in the nightshade family, which includes poisonous plants from deadly nightshade to jimsonweed to tobacco. But this plant family also has other wholesome edibles such as eggplants, peppers and potatoes.
Tomatoes come in warm colors from yellow to orange to purple, and some varieties are still green when ripe. But only the red ones contain the antioxidant lycopene, which gives them their color and is linked to healthy hearts and immune systems. Tomato plants are either determinate bushes that stop growing when the top bud sets fruit, or indeterminate vines that keep growing and producing until the first frost.
The Central Valley is the state’s star tomato producing region, accounting for 95% of the processing tomatoes, which are fleshy and thick-skinned, as well as most of the fresh-market tomatoes, which are juicy with thin skins. All processing tomatoes and most fresh tomatoes are grown on bushes. However, about 20% of the fresh tomatoes are grown on staked vines along the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
Fresh tomatoes: Greenhouse-grown seedlings are transplanted into raised beds from January through June for harvests from May through December. Fresh tomatoes are so delicate that they are usually handpicked when still green, which prevents damage during transport. Later, the green tomatoes are ripened to red with ethylene gas, which is produced naturally by many fruits as they mature. The exception is Southern California’s the “vine-ripened” tomatoes, which are picked when pink.
Processing tomatoes: Seeds are planted in raised beds from January to June, and the seedlings are hand-thinned. These sturdy tomatoes are machine-harvested from July to October when they’re fully ripe, and then trucked to processing plants within 6 hours. The trucks are left uncovered to save time and are piled so high with tomatoes that some tumble out, leaving a trail of bright red splotches down the freeway. The tomatoes’ thick skins keep them from being crushed during transport, which is a good thing because a single truck holds an astonishing 300,000 tomatoes that weigh 50,000 pounds.
photo: David Besa/WikimediaCommons
© Robin Meadows & Janet Byron