O.K. It’s 111 degrees in California’s Central Valley, the so-called nation’s bread basket mostly brown and pretty barren. Someone down at Morro Bay’s Embarcadero told me the water clocked in at 68 degrees (and that’s about 10 degrees more than normal). There are fires in the Sierras, so many fires that we have to cancel our planned hike up the back of Half Dome because the trail itself is on fire. The whales that generally migrate past the Central Coast on their way to the balmy climes of Costa Rica and southern Mexico seem to have taken up permanent residence, just hanging out between Big Sur and Point Conception. Why go anywhere when the water’s this warm and, as a result, there are plenty of bait fish?
Scientists have just announced that for certain Australia’s extreme temperatures are a result of global climate change and that they’re pretty certain California’s heat and drought are caused by the same phenomenon. But you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows (thanks, Bob).
As we drive across the Valley, making our way toward Sequoia since Yosemite is out of the question, I watch a crop duster (sounds so benign) fly lie over the land and bless the land with its cargo hold of chemicals. A little later I see a truck making its way over the dry pasture pouring something vaguely greenish out of the hose that attaches to its tank. I know it might be psychosomatic, but I start to sneeze. That’s why I buy organic, I announce.
I could be over reacting. I mean I know I have that Latin propensity for the dramatic.
About two-thirds of the way across the Valley, somewhere not too far away from Hanford, the highway is closed and everyone (that’s like two cars) is re-directed on to a small, twisting road. After a couple of turns a vast and complex structure looms ahead of us, complete with walls and towers. The place is huge, dwarfing the container cars that are parked within the barbed wire establishment. There are locked gates and fences with razor wire running along the top. When I stop to take pictures people yell at me.
I’m not a fantasy buff but this place wouldn’t be amiss in the darkly industrialized and ruined lands that Frodo Baggins has to travel to save the world from the dark lord. So I can’t help but be curious. Out in front there’s a sign that reads “Global Tomato Innovation.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never expected my tomatoes (or any of my vegetables for that matter) to innovate and I can’t even really imagine what that might look like. So I have to assume that even though the subject of the phrase isn’t clear that someone else will be doing the innovative things with tomatoes.
And given the scary look of this place, and the fact that there’s what appears to be a gigantic chemical factory on the other side of the road, I’m not sure I want to know what’s happening to those tomatoes.
I get in the car and just say “Drive.”
But you know, I can’t help myself. So when I eventually get home I look up Global Tomato Innovation.
When the plant (or whatever it is) opened in 2011 the event was celebrated in the local newspapers in Lemore, Hanford and Fresno. The accounts said the center “isn’t doing research on a supertomato,” but was instead working on tomato paste. Reporters praised the “state of the art” kitchen where researchers worked on how to better make and transport tasty tomato paste.
Wow. That was one big kitchen. What’s the razor wire for?
So I did a little more research. (I do these things sometimes, and always feel like the crazy paranoid in some bad movie. What’s the famous line used by disparate personalities from Golda Meir to William Gibson–“even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies”?) It seems the Innovative Tomatoes are owned by Olam, a now multi-national corporation that began in Nigeria and eventually moved to Singapore, where its major stock holders are investment firms. They also partner with the food magnate Cargill.
I’m not saying this is bad. But I’m not certain their innovation techniques are working very effectively because most of the supermarket tomatoes I have had taste like water. These are the kinds of places that are the delivery system for most of our food and they could not possibly make our produce feel any more remote, even when I’m standing in the heart of the Central Valley, the region that produces much of the country’s fruits and vegetables.
And delivery system says it all, doesn’t it? Words like farmer and cook are replaced with the terminology of the factory. Even the word innovation, now applied widely to business, education and medicine, comes from the culture of the factory. It sounds laudatory, like innovative individuals (or tomatoes) are doing something creative. But if you look at the word’s actual application, it usually means someone’s doing something “efficient” and money making.
I recently started canning myself, making some tomato sauce and paste out of the tomatoes my daughter and her husband grew in their own garden. (More about that later in another post.) You can buy that at the store my (very sweet and loving) mother-in-law tells me. But in fact, I don’t think we can anymore.
You know those tomatoes at the farmers’ market? I don’t think they’re doing anything very innovative. They’re just sitting in their bins, passive, lazy and sweet and full of flavor. Heirloom fruit. And that’s just fine with me.