A bad year for tomatoes

We lived in Georgia for seven years, and five of those were spent sitting out the worst drought in half a century. Since we’ve never been known for keeping an immaculate lawn (ahem… that’s a fairly gargantuan understatement, to the horror of almost any neighbor we’ve ever had who did care about lawn appearances) it didn’t effect us in any life-changing way. But as the north Georgia reservoirs began to dry up into glorified mud puddles, and the Urban Water Disaster also-known-as Atlanta began to war with neighboring states about water rights, and state lines, and anything else concerning the sustenance of a sprawling mass of water-consumers (upright, grass-loving citizens), we found ourselves in front-row seats of a great circus of Sea World proportions.

In short, we were forced to think a little more about water. We could only water our garden on certain days, during certain hours; landscaping companies could only water client gardens if they brought their own well-water; our local water utility began charging usage based on a tiered system. And, really? We thought these restrictions made a lot of sense, even during non-drought times. Fans of water conservation, we became.

So when we moved to Indiana at the end of last summer, it was a shock to the system to see unabashed irrigation happening at all hours of the day (even on days that called for rain — and yes, I witnessed many the automatic sprinkler watering a lawn while it was raining). After so many years of talking, thinking, and rethinking water use, it was like living in a new world — one we didn’t share with our old neighbors a few states south. This is not to blame our friends and neighbors in Indianapolis — there just hasn’t been a major drought in the past few years to force a change in habits. And as we know, if we (i.e., people) don’t have to think about something, we tend not to.

At the same time we watched all that watering, we were also experiencing the joys of Indiana produce. Last summer was a bounty, as far as I could tell. A year ago, I could go to the farmer’s market and buy a thirty-pound box of organic roma tomatoes for less than a dollar a pound. I was introduced to varieties of apples that I never knew existed, and bought new varieties every week. Our CSA box was always overflowing, and I purchased large quantities of peppers and beans at low prices to freeze for winter use.

So this year, I was ready to take even more advantage of those end-of-summer bounties. I was waiting for those romas to come up so I could buy a bushel or two and can sauce for the winter. I ran out of chopped frozen peppers too early last winter, so I wanted to be sure and get more when they were cheap. And then the first week I saw the apple guys with their bushel of Sweet Sixteens, I bought up 7 pounds, ready to eat them all myself.

But the romas never even showed up at the market. The Mennonite farmers finally had their $1 red peppers — and I bought all three of them. And the Sweet Sixteens? They were mushy, and lacking that magical and subtle flavor that had me giving a cold shoulder to the Honeycrisps this time last year.

So, what happened between last September and now? Well, for one, Indianapolis saw the driest August on record. That, after one of the wettest Junes on record. According to a local farmer, the wet June was bad for tomatoes by encouraging rot and worms; then the dry August just made everything stop. The tomatoes stopped growing, stopped ripening on the vine. And even when irrigation is possible (not often for a small urban CSA using garden plots all over downtown), it’s just not the same as rain. And the apples? The farmer said it just wasn’t a good year; he blamed a lack of good pollination, which means a lack of bee action. Could this also be effected by rain?

It’s left me thinking that, if you’re not a farmer, you never really feel the weight of the weather. Sure, I have realized that planting thirsty impatiens on my fence line is not something I’ll do again; and we’ve too felt the disappointment of having a garden-full of stagnant tomato plants. But I don’t have to wonder what we’ll eat this winter, which is something that all people had to think about, given a summer like the one we’ve had, less than a hundred years ago.

Right now, I’m thankful that I still have the option to buy canned tomatoes at the grocery store, and that I can probably still find a crisp-sweet eating apple of a different variety at the Farmer’s Market. We can turn lemons into lemonade, by canning apple butter instead of tomatoes. We can continue to financially and personally support the farmers who are having a rough time of it this year, by purchasing their goods even thought they aren’t as tasty or inexpensive as last year.

And we can long for the day again, in a September future, when it’s a good year for tomatoes and apples; and when our teeth sink into that perfectly crisp, sweet, spicy bite, we can be even more amazed by the blessing that is a good harvest.

5 thoughts on “A bad year for tomatoes

  1. Here in West Michigan it has been a great year for tomatoes. Amazing what a few hundred miles can do. We are getting Roma’s from our CSA at the rate of 5 quarts per week, with more coming this week. And the heirlooms have been great! The pumpkins, however, are a “no go” this fall.

    1. What happened to the pumpkins?

      I’m fighting insane jealousy over your romas. A friend here, from West Michigan, brought home 30# last time she visited home. I was so counting on making my own sauce for the whole winter — but it just wouldn’t be cost-effective at all.

  2. Not sure about the punkins….our CSA farmers just said it was a bad year. Maybe too much rain at a critical time?
    That’s OK…I can get a punkin anywhere…but the tomatoes are dear to me!
    Roma’s currently simmering on the stove for a puree I will can later today, and a mess of ’em in the dehydrator for dried tomatoes preserved in olive oil and herbs.
    Good eats!

  3. Yeah, bad tomato season down in Alabama as well. We had four plants and got 4 tomatoes in tota (2 of which the bugs had masticated). The plants grew large and full, but no flowers and no fruit. Oddly, our peppers did quite well this year. Other veteran tomato growers in our area also report poor output for this trip around the sun.

  4. Same story in NC. Too wet then too hot and dry. I planted 16 tomato plants and got about one every few days – not the crop I had visions of canning. oh well we will pray for a better season next year.

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