Monday, February 20, 2012

The Oklahoma Tomato… Destined to Obscurity?

A typical harvest here in 1996.

For almost a decade now tomato harvests have been lackluster to say the least. I can remember when a tomato plant tossed anywhere in the garden would flourish, producing an over abundance of fruit all summer. There were no requirements or procedures to ‘baby’ fussy plants… they were tough and hardy. Planted in several three week successions, one could expect tomatoes from June until October and first frost. And as Autumn arrived, the last green tomatoes were collected for relish or wrapped in newspaper and allowed to slowly ripen for an extension of the season.

Originating in South America, tomatoes were prized by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD. They were brought to Europe from the Americas by Conquistadors in the early 1600’s but were considered poison by the wealthy. Unfortunately, the flatware and plates of that time were made of lead based pewter and the acidic tomato caused the lead to leach from their dinnerware to the fruit. When it was eaten, the victims died of lead poisoning… a very unpleasant way to go. Peasants had no such finery in their kitchens and ate from wooden plates with wooden spoons. Thus the tomato was relegated as a food of the lower classes where it was widely accepted as a staple. Not until the 1800’s did the upper classes begin to embrace the tomato. By the time of the Civil War, the tomato was at last accepted throughout the south as a garden and dietary staple.

Americans eat over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year, making it one of the most popular items on our menu. Throughout the United States, tomato harvests have been declining for several years now. Last summer the Farmer’s Market in Oklahoma City said due to the erratic weather their suppliers in Texas had very few to ship. And elsewhere yields have been down, with many home gardens producing only several dozen instead of the bushels that were collected in the past.

There are factors which need to be considered but the current list of illnesses the tomato plant may have seems a bit ridiculous. It includes leaf roll, blossom end rot, sunscald cracks, and cat face ad others. Various sites call for a laundry list of exhaustive remedies… all for a plant that was at one time so hardy it originated in Mexico!

The weather may truly be a factor according to new guidelines for growing tomatoes. It is reported that tomato plants like daytime temperatures between 70 and 85 degrees. Accordingly, our summer temperatures are entirely too hot for the hybrid tomatoes that have been recently introduced. In hybridizing the tomato for growers in cooler climates, they have genetically altered the original requirements of the plant... previously tomatoes liked it hot and dry.

For our climate, perhaps purchase some heirloom seeds and begin the plants on a sunny window sill three to four weeks before planning to plant them outside. And maybe, just maybe the old tomato seeds will remember their genetic make up and produce as they did in the past. There is nothing more tasteful to the palate than a warm, freshly picked, sun-ripened tomato. I miss them!
Heirloom seeds may be purchased online at: www.heirloomseeds.com/tomatoes.htm Good Luck!