When we commit to using fresh ingredients for our sauces, we also become closely tied to mother-nature and whatever mother-nature gives us. This has been our first year contract growing and it’s been turning out to be a slow harvest but a fast learning experience for us.
This year, we set-out to grow 50,000 lbs of tomatoes for our ketchups. However, a late planting of the tomatoes has led to a slow harvest year for us. And as the weather gets chillier in the bay area, the tomatoes are growing slower and we are getting farther away from our 50,000 goal. Last week, I started my quest to look for more tomatoes and started reaching out to 30+ farmers in the SF bay area, San Joaquin valley, Yolo/Sacramento County, Petaluma, and beyond. I even talked to my roommate’s brother-in-law in S. Ontario, Canada, where many of the large farms there contract grow for Heinz (although he does not).
What I have found is that there is no longer a middle-sized farmer who is able to support the medium-range volumes of a producer like me who is looking for 50K -100K lbs. What I have seen is the middle-farmer has been squeezed out by the guys at the top who gets the millions in volume at a low margin. There are also an over-abundance of small-farmers with <20 acres who directly sells to fresh markets aka farmer’s markets. At these markets, they can command a premium price for the heirloom and fresh market varieties of tomatoes at 2 or $3 a lb, but for someone like me who is using 2 lbs of tomatoes per jar of my ketchup, it is just not sustainable or affordable. As one of the farmers from Terra Firma farms in Yolo County says, there is an overcrowding of small farmers who sell to fresh markets. There’s not enough middle-sized farmers who can support an in-between volume that artisans and producers need. And I am not alone in this picture, many small to medium sized organic product companies are also having the same issue, they can’t work with a small farmer because the price is not right and they can’t work with a large tomato processor because they don’t require the volume that they typically do. It’s a very interesting problem that is happening. Perhaps there is an opportunity to form a co-op or CSA like program where producers can aggregate together to buy larger volumes to make it worthwhile for medium size farmers?
And the increase in labor cost with the labor shortage in California is not helping with the cost either. This year, many farms are experiencing labor shortages, there’s just no one who can pick the tomatoes. Some farms are letting acres and acres of grown crops go to waste because they can’t find any labor to pick the crops. It’s a sad tragedy that is happening, food is going to waste when someone is really in need of it. I have started to question whether or not there is a technology or tool out there that can aid the picking of these crops without the giant harvester that come in and takes out the entire plant. And with a few more phone calls to UC Davis Ag and Engineering, I learned that robotics are one of the solutions but the technology is not quite there yet to be affordable. I also learned that in Europe where farms are smaller in scale compared to the U.S. they use a technique called prone which puts a laborer on his stomach and he lays on a mattress and gets pulled by a tractor through the crop fields as he picks. Perhaps the answer is an existing machine (like the harvester) but adapted with new technology to help with the increasingly pressing problem of the lack of labor?
After speaking with many farms in the area, I wouldn’t say I am an expert on the tomato crop situation but I have learned a lot. One thing that’s very interesting that my roommate’s brother-in-law, a 2nd generation farmer, told me is farming is no longer his main income. As a small-scale farmer with 200 acres of land, he no longer sees his farm as his main source of income, as much as he would have liked to. The income just doesn’t support him, he has a main job and the farm has become his retirement plan. He has thought about going into fresh markets and selling at a premium, however this would require marketing, which is not his strong suit. His specialty is farming. And with large-scale contract growing being dictated by large corporations of what to grow, what time to produce, and what time to deliver, it’s making it real hard for a farmer to be a farmer.
I believe with more and more artisan producers like me, there will be more demand for medium-sized farmers. I also believe one of the ways we can get affordable and quality food to people’s hands lies in these farmers. My goal is to find these farmers and develop these relationships so we can grow together to bring good quality food to everyone. In the meantime, we are waiting patiently for our tomatoes to turn red.