Tomato Triage

Shopping for salvation at the farmers' market


I love the farmers' market. A victim of my own post-yuppie childless female demographic, I can't help but cherish a vision of myself in a summer dress, basket tucked in the crook of my elbow, sashaying between stalls of heirloom tomatoes, wildflowers, and artisanal pork products. In this fantasy it is 7:30 on a brilliantly sunny Sunday morning, and all the grizzled farmers and jolly butchers know me by name.

This is, of course, an absurd delusion. What really happens most weeks is that I sleep in, then pick up a shrink-wrapped bundle of green beans and an equally shrink-wrapped Tyson chicken at the Safeway.

While I weep for the lost aesthetic experience, I'm not worried about endangering my own virtue, my health, or the health of the planet if I'm a little hung over from Saturday night's festivities or if it happens to be raining when I wake up. Because there simply isn't anything like conclusive evidence that shopping at the farmers' market will save me (or the environment) from such heartaches.

I'm sure you've heard: Killer tomatoes are attacking America as we speak. The New York Times editorialized that we "should not have to wait until the next food scare before Washington comes to the rescue." The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is doggedly eliminating possible culprits state by state. But not all tomatoes are equally terrifying, the FDA has been careful to point out. Cherry or grape tomatoes are fine, as are homegrown tomatoes.

This last bit has the "eat local" crowd crowing. Locavore (word of the year 2007!) logic goes like this: Those big factory farms are awash in God knows what kind of creepy-crawlies. Tomatoes are picked in one place, washed in another, packed elsewhere, and shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles. Of course they're going to get dirty! Far better, say the locavores, to eat food that is grown within a small radius, say 100 miles of your home. Buy at farms and farmers markets. Get to know your local producers and only shop with the ones you trust. Grow your own! An appealing prospect, to be sure. But the gap between homegrown and farmer's market may be larger than the gap between farmer's market and supermarket.

"As a scientist, I cannot say smaller is better. It's just not that simple," Martha Robert, a microbiologist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and a safety adviser to the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, told Newsweek. "The large packers we have are extremely stringent with sanitizing techniques and measures to prevent cross-contamination, but if someone makes a mistake when they're mixing or dicing large quantities, the problem is going to be larger too," she explains. "But sometimes a small grower has been doing something for years, and [they] don't know they're putting themselves at risk."

Put another way, anyone who has ever been in one of New York's independent corner greengrocers, or an unaffiliated rural grocery store knows that small and local are no guarantee of higher hygiene standards. Some big operations are squeaky clean, others breed disease. Likewise with the little guys. As I write, the feds are fingering a couple of growers and maybe a restaurant chain as the culprits after clearing thousands of tomato producers.

Small can be beautiful, but it's no guarantee of better hygiene or virtue. Accidents happen. Sometimes pigs shit in inconvenient places or someone fails to wash his hands on little farms, too.

Because advocates of local eating conflate health and environmental issues on a regular basis, allow me to briefly do so as well. Much of the warm glow of farmers' market virtue comes from a growing concern about something called "food miles"—when a box of grape tomatoes has to travel hundreds of miles to get to your plate, surely the number of carbon-belching, petroleum-powered vehicles involved becomes unacceptable. So even if you still might end up calling Ralph on the big white phone thanks to some tainted tomatoes, at least you'll be able to tell him you weren't contributing to global warming, right?

Just in time for summer, a new study finds a serious hole in the food miles concept: In terms of total carbon output, what you eat matters a lot more than where it came from. Swapping out chicken for red meat every now and then can eliminate just as much carbon as eating entirely local. Going further still, several studies have come up with variations on this somewhat counterintuitive conclusion: shipping spring lamb on the slow boat from New Zealand may actually produce less carbon than hopping in the minivan for a family trip to pick up some locally-raised lamb shanks from the farmer outside of town, or a drive to the farmers' market.

Because I'm a late sleeper, I often manage to emerge, unshowered and basketless, just as they're shutting down the farmers' market in my neighborhood. The site is no longer a magical, vegetable version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It's just a parking lot with a burst glass container of fresh-from-the-cow (potentially unpasteurized) milk, a Port-a-Potty in the corner, and nowhere to wash your hands. The snarl of shoppers' cars and farmers' old diesel trucks that chokes the neighborhood on market days is just clearing up. The farmers' market is marvelous enough without all the trappings—while I'm sad that once again this week I won't befriend a jolly butcher, I remain unconcerned about my gastronomic virtue or the relative threats to my guts.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reason associate editor.

NEXT: Ride 'Em, Jesus!

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  1. In general, since locally grown food operations tend to be less efficient than the large, evil corporation operations, they probably cause more overall environmental harm (in terms of land occupied, waste disposed, and a few other things I can’t think of off the top of my head) per calorie than supermarket foods.

  2. But I thought we already knew how to defeat the Killer Tomatoes?

    Where’s my album of Puberty Love?


  3. How was this obvious tie-in missed?

  4. E. Coli on your tomatoes? Wash them! Here’s a big cluestick for you fancy schmancy cosmotarian cityfolk: tomatoes grow in the ground! That’s “ground” as in dirt and mud and worms. Oh, and lots of fecal matter from God’s furry creatures. The world outside your city walls is a dirty filthy place!

    Here’s the good news though: tomatoes are washable. They are round and smooth and incredibly easy to wash. Spinach is washable too, but not nearly as much as tomatoes.

  5. It sounds like your local farmer’s market sucks.

    Vermont farmer’s markets kick ass.

    Look, I understand the general thrust of your analysis, and its good intentions. You identify large producers with “capitalist progress”, and therefore become prickly whenever anyone criticizes large producers. And that’s all well and good, but the large producers only exist in their current form because they are part of a statist web of transportation policies, land-use policies, farm subsidy policies, public-private marketing association policies, trade policies, and public health policies. The large producers can just as easily be seen as creatures of statism as they can be seen as noble capitalist competitors.

    I’ll start feeling sympathy for those poor giant agribusiness farmers set upon by meanie environmentalists and snobby slow food enthusiasts when they give back all their subsidies and when their regulatory advantages are taken away. If agriculture still trends towards massive operations in that environment, I’ll get on board with your crusade in their favor. But until we see that, I’m sitting this one out, because until we see that big growers /= capitalist heroes, sorry.

    By the way, one thing that libertarians should keep in mind when discussing agriculture is this: what economic situation lends itself better to statist regulation and intervention – a system with a small number of giant firms with centralized and standardized operations, or a huge number of small producers operating diffusely and in ad-hoc arrangements? I think the steady advance of statism in this field has been enhanced by the centralization of food processing, because it makes total control of the anal sort sought by food hygiene freaks seem within reach, if the government will just try a little harder. In a chaotic production environment, people would be more willing to realize the stubborn truth that perfect food safety is not possible, and therefore not something that can be regulated into existence.

  6. economist: you should read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Certainly changed my views on “sustainable farming”. I don’t think everyone in favor of local foods is advocating a return to subsistence farming or is a neo-luddite; although those people certainly exist, there are plenty who recognize that modern technology combined with traditional agricultural cycle/crop+pasture rotation actually produce more, better-tasting food with less waste and without expensive, petroleum-derived fertilizers. An example of the problem with industrial farming techniques is that farmers using such techniques require government subsidies to remain “profitable”… all at the expense of the taxpayers, of course.

  7. In this fantasy it is 7:30 on a brilliantly sunny Sunday morning, and all the grizzled farmers and jolly butchers know me by name.

    There’s your problem. Come Sunday morning all the good farmers are in church. 😉

    Another problem with eating local is this thing called “seasons.” Come the end of winter you’re picking through the stuff you’ve stored in the basement trying to find something that isn’t too rotten to eat. After all, right after “locavore” comes “no preservatives!”

  8. After all, right after “locavore” comes “no preservatives!”

    Salt/pickling/fermentation, canning, and freezing are all natural techniques that have been in use for a very long time. In fact, freezing can be done very cheaply in the winter months if properly configured.

    But I agree with the sentiment that people who eat *only* local foods are nuts: some of my favorite foods (mangoes and kiwis) don’t grow anywhere near where I live. That said, if I buy them, I should bear the full cost of their production and delivery to me. It’s clear that’s not happening, even at a place like Whole Foods.

  9. You win J Sub. !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    So right, Larry A. Trying eating local produce in St Paul about January 12th. However, we can have some winter veggies where I live but in the summer home grown are a huge water suck. Not that I care about the water nannies, just sayin’

    Speaking of those got dam water nannies. They’re preaching the gospel. Someday they’ll admit that 80% of the available water in the Golden State goes to the farmers and shut up about taking three minute showers and watering the roses.

  10. I found that the Farmer’s Market fantasy in reality is more fantasy than reality. The chance of getting fresh yummy (read: edible) produce at a Farmer’s Market isn’t a whole lot better than at the local grocery.

    Case in point: Farmers Market in Napili Maui where half the stuff being sold was bought at Costco the day before.

    In the end, unless the seller is spooning or slicing off samples, it is still a crapshoot as to the quality. When you win, it can be a big win. But when you get rock hard peaches that rot before they ripen, you feel a lot more pissed than if you bought them at Sam’s Club.

  11. Brandybuck has it right on. Now pre-diced/sliced or anything where the skin is compromised is a different story.

    As for KMW’s assertion that farmer’s markets provide no cleaner and no healthier of a product, well she is right. But dammit, modern “supermarket variety” tomatoes (and most other veggies) are bred for shipping hardiness and uniformity not flavor.

    So, while Ms. Ward may have the convenience of buying her shrink wrapped produce, the tomato that finally graces her plate will be a pale vision of its potential glory and that is a shame. When you can get tomatoes like this or this in your supermarket, then my argument becomes moot but until then, growing your own or getting them from a specialty farmer is still the best flavor option.

    As others have mentioned the fact that you can get fresh tomatoes, even ones that taste like styrofoam, in January is a big bonus to mass market production and globalization. I just think that if stuff grows in your area, while in season you should take advantage of it.

  12. In the end, unless the seller is spooning or slicing off samples, it is still a crapshoot as to the quality.

    Well, just like with anything else, caveat emptor: it is the responsibility of the buyer to know what he or she is buying, a rule that applies equally to the supermarket as to the farmer’s market.

    In my experience in Boston, going to the farmer’s markets just a few times gave me a good idea of the quality of each vendor, which now enables me to do better than the local Shaws, which has uniformly bad quality throughout the produce section.

  13. Brandybuck! Washable tomatoes? What WILL they think of next? Are those things hybrids? Or some of those new Franken Foods?

    Man, when I was a kid my Mama washed everything. It already looked clean to me, but she washed it anyway.

    Sorry to admit to eating a whole bunch of cherries the other day, straight out of the bag sans water.

    BTW, how come we can eat produce from Mexico today and not get Montezuma’s? We eat all kinda stuff comes from Mexico.

  14. Well, just like with anything else, caveat emptor

    Of course.

    I was getting at the implication of the term Farmer’s Market. Which is that one can expect to buy good stuff that is healthier and better tasting. It isn’t that this is never true but that it is frequently not true.

    Course, I live in So Cal, where the choices are greater, even in the Supers. Which, I’ve noticed have been making efforts to compete with Whole Foods and the Farmer’s Markets by carrying ever larger stashes of fresh fruit and veggies at better and better quality.

    Been a while since I shopped out of state but the last time I was in Virginia I was surprised at how slim the pickin’s were for veggies and fruit. Worse, the Safeway in Parker Az (in the middle of Indian farming country) had one aisle of wilted produce covered with fruit flies.

  15. re: Brandybuck@12:52

    The current tomato crisis involves salmonella, not e. coli. And according to one source I read last week, there’s some evidence that the contamination might be inside the tomato, reducing washing to a futile exercise.

    Now if we had home irradiators, we could all enjoy safe produce.

  16. Farmer’s Markets are usually total scams for fleecing the local eviro-morons. However, I have two farms near me that sell produce they grew themselves. The prices are cheap, and the produce is fresh and often huge. Total win. However, in winter I still want cilantro and tomatillos and mangoes and pineapples.

    So let’s just have both markets. What, we already do?

  17. You identify large producers with “capitalist progress”…noble capitalist competitors…poor giant agribusiness farmers set upon by meanie environmentalists and snobby slow food enthusiasts…your crusade in their favor…capitalist heroes

    I am not sure what article you read, but it sounds interesting. Provide a link?

  18. I’m with Fluffy, the farmer’s markets in Vermont rock. They tend to be collections of representatives from the actual farms selling their own stuff. Probably not healthier or cleaner than the stuff from Costco (after all, it is still grown in dirt and cow manure) but lots fresher and better tasting.

  19. Clearly Ms. Mangu-Ward doesn’t (as she admits) spend much time at the farmer’s market. The locavores are a very small but obnoxious minority. Most people seem to be there for the quality and freshness factor. I’m not as concerned about the distance to market as the time to market.

    There’s also the ripeness factor. Nothing you can buy at the supermarket can compare to the fresh ripe strawberries at the farmers market. Underripe food keeps much longer which is why so much of the fruit at Safeway isn’t worth eating.

  20. Fluffy (with respect to your statements on industrial farms),
    While it is certainly true that government subsidies are quickening the trend towards large, centralized agribusiness, it is mainly a catalyst for a process taking place anyway. That is, while the subsidies allow them to make more money for their crops and gives them more incentive to enlarge their operations, this favors big agribusiness in the first place because industrial farming is, in general, more efficient. Note: I am still in favor of ending both the subsidies and regulations that restrict farming activity. I just don’t think that if we got rid of them we would end domination of agriculture by large companies.
    Doubtless farmers are discovering that some traditional methods can improve crop yields. My point was simply that many “slow food”,”localist”, and “organic” proponents fail to see the forest (the environmental impact if everyone suddenly went “local” or “organic” due to greater land requirements) for the trees (the environmental impact of transportation, pesticides, and fertilizer).

  21. Washing veggies is for wimpy city folk. ;o)

    I grew up poor just outside of New Orleans and learned through necessity that there ain’t nothing better than tomatoes straight off the plant. These days I can afford to shop at whatever high end market I wish and I still till up a section of the backyard to grow my own vegetables. I still eat them unwashed too.

  22. I’ve had two totally opposite experiences in Farmer’s Markets. The one in Madison, WI was all local farmers selling their own stuff, and it ruled. The best cheese I’ve ever had, ever, I’d get there.

    The one in Dallas had all kinds of people selling the same stuff you’d get in the supermarkets. There were exceptions, but we’d go during strawberry season and not find a single locally grown strawberry.

  23. I think that if one can find better quality at a local farmers market, so be it. I think if you can find better quality at Safeway, then so be it.

    However, while fluffy makes some excellent counter points, the point remains the same: the concept of locally grown “organic” produce “saving the planet” is dubious.

    And the problem is, most ‘locavores’ and ‘food miles’ adherents literally cannot wrap their brains around the concept that 400,000 strawbeerries shipped from Venezuela might actually use (despite the subsidies that fluffy speaks of) less real fuel per strawberry, than the guy with the grey ponytail, driving his two bushels of strawberries to the market from the nether regions of the county in his quaint ’56 pickup with the ‘give peace a chance’ bumper sticker.

    Yes, to give due to fluffy’s points, calculating cost is difficult, due to the fantastic maze of tarrifs, subsidies and state intevention into the transportation, energy and fuel markets. But one can calculate the amount of real fuel and carbon footprint which will factor heavily into the cost.

  24. The current tomato crisis involves salmonella, not e. coli. And according to one source I read last week, there’s some evidence that the contamination might be inside the tomato, reducing washing to a futile exercise.

    I’m currently on day 3 of a tomato-induced salmonella infection and I could really use some help from Washington about now. Oh god, I only have one roll of toilet paper left.

  25. ….we’d go during strawberry season and not find a single locally grown strawberry.

    I grew up in the strawberry capital of America and there were strawberry stands all over the county. Mild winters and summers made the OC perfect for truck farms and strawberries. Not many grown there anymore and when you pick some up at the local strawberry stand they are pretty much the same as any supermarket. Picked too soon, still white on the inside. But boy, they’re big.

    My kids have never tasted a really good strawberry so I planted some this year. Imagine never having tasted a fully ripe strawberry off the vine. Dam Shame!

  26. I spent last summer hauling produce from California to Florida. A lot of it, berries, bagged salads, brocolli, etc, came outta the field already packed for transport. It goes into a vacuum and is cooled down to optimum temp in about 45 minutes. Now into my trailer and as a team we would be in central Florida in about 60 hours. By the next day, the company would ship it to the store for sale. So about 4 days from picking to the time you eat it. Not bad for something perishable, grown 3000 miles away

  27. I am not sure what article you read, but it sounds interesting. Provide a link?

    Ethan, come on. This isn’t your first day here.

    Whenever Reason addresses agricultural issues, it’s always to snidely demonstrate disdain for small producers and their markets, because all those folks are just tools of nasty deluded environmentalists. There is an ongoing Tooheyesque campaign here at Reason in favor of large producers and in favor of the current mainstream system of food production.

    I’m ascribing to that campaign the motive of seeing an essential identity between the current mainstream system and “capitalism”, but I am extremely confident that when I do so I’m correct.

    Ms. Mangu-Ward specifically goes out of her way here to defend shrink-wrapped Tyson chicken bought at the Safeway. I merely want to point out that Tyson Chicken, Safeway, and the entire culture and economy in which Ms. Mangu-Ward’s purchase takes place is deeply rooted in statism. And that means that even if it’s dirty environmentalists and crunchy co-op types who hate Tyson Chicken and Safeway, you can’t just say “Well, anything those people hate must be capitalism, so I better defend Tyson and Safeway because that’s the Reason way.”

    I shouldn’t have to tell anyone here that when Ms. Mangu-Ward gets in her car in the morning and drives to a Safeway in Falls Church, for example, that about just about every aspect of 20th century statism has contributed to that action, starting with the muckrakers and progressives, continuing on through the New Deal, motoring on through with the Robert Moses types of the 50’s, and so on and so on.

    I am not taking any position on whether local or organic produce is better for anyone’s health or for the planet and on some level I honestly don’t give a damn either way. I just want to speak up in every Reason thread that seeks to defend Big Agriculture to point out that they’re defending an artificial and social-engineered creation when they do that, and not the market. And I’m telling you, Reason absolutely thinks they’re defending the market, whether I can link to those exact words in this article or not.

  28. Those bizarrely-shaped, softball-sized reddish things they sell as strawberries at the supermarket scare the hell out of me.

  29. I’m with joe on that one.

    Best strawberries I ever had came from my neighbor’s pick-your-own in Wisconsin, and they bore no resemblance to what’s sold as “strawberries” these days.

  30. Sigh. Can we just set up a common comment area for each of these perennial contentious subjects so we can have each debate once?

  31. Not only that, RC, but they taste like…well…they don’t actually taste like anything, do they?

  32. Fluff, isn’t Tyson the folks who dumped all their chicken shit into the Arkansas river while Governor Clinton didn’t seem to notice?

    And, I see your point(s). Tend to agree.

    Brah Ben, interesting (actually quite interesting) and that phenom is why we get bananas in NYC in January.

  33. 1) Ominvore’s Dilemma-Michael Pollan, I second the above recommendation. An excellent and informative read!

    2) Farmers markets in the Pacific NW are outstanding! I can get several things fresh. Awesome cheese, fresh ciders, berries, greens, you name it! And living in a FOODIE town, I can get the best quality groceries available. In many instances the farmers market is better. Foraged mushrooms, morel’s in this case, are 10 bucks a pound at the FM. 40 at the grocery store, and they’ve been sitting in shit the whole day. Another example, grass fed vs. corn fed beef! My wife and I did a blinded test, and had a friend blind us to the wrapping. We both picked the grass fed as our choice once it was all cooked, and unblinded. The texture wasn’t as greasy, and the flavors were more intense.

    I shop at both places, and look for quality ingredients. Period! In many cases, the Farmer’s Market CRUSHES the top shelf grocery store, in a number of areas. But we cook a lot, and a variety of types of food, which means food from South America is on the dinner table, and New Zealand lamb, and French Cheeses, Austrian Gruner Veltliner’s etc.

    The farm subsidies are criminal, and the crops (i.e the MUTANT Strawberries that taste like a Starburst) are also crummy for many of the “free market” reasons cited above.

    What I don’t understand is why some of those arguing for large farms, aren’t arguing for the “BEST PRODUCT”. In a “free market” the best product will win. The problem is, many American’s eat about 5 different meals a week, and repeat week after week. Our palette’s have become NUMB to quality. Laziness, and a cavalier attitude about what we eat, and how we eat, is the primary reason we’ve got a nation of obese citizens!

    [And it is a myth that it costs more to eat well, you just have to prioritize and plan correctly!]

  34. As a kid I used to eat fruit right off the tree, bush and ground. Wipe the dirt and manure off the strawberries and munch away. Nothing better than eating watermelon out in the middle of the watermelon patch. Yes, I had a few bouts of the hershy-squirts, but when you live with germs you build a resistance to them. Food poisoning was from badly canned tomatoes stuck in the cellar for five years, not tomatoes off the vine.

  35. As a kid I used to eat fruit right off the tree, bush and ground.

    Wipe the dirt and manure off the strawberries and munch away.

    You wiped the dirt off? Sissy.

  36. new world dan gets it exactly right: it’s about quality. i buy my produce from farmers direct and from farmers’ markets where possible not because of some rousseau-ian illusion or the locavore bullshit, but because tomatoes taste like tomatoes, strawberries taste like strawberries, peppers aren’t bland cardboard. and it is absolutely impossible to get real corn otherwise.

    as for farmers’ markets in dallas, well, that’s your punishment (among many) for living in dallas.

  37. But Tyson’s chicken is nasty! You know it’s so contaminated, they swirl the meat around in bleach before they pack it? It’s true. Also, factory farming produces giant lagoons of animal waste — in Iowa, the floods have liberated these lagoons to flow through towns and downstream, where they’ll poison the Gulf of Mexico.

    I like your article, but it would be better if you discussed the GHG, land-use, and sanitary aspects of food production separately, rather than playing them off against each other. Just because the issue is complicated is no reason to treat environmentalists, or your readers, like morons.

  38. as for farmers’ markets in dallas, well, that’s your punishment (among many) for living in dallas.

    Do you even need to ask if I still live there?

    Also, factory farming produces giant lagoons of animal waste

    I doubt a factory-farmed cow produces more shit than an family-farmed cow. The question is, what happens to that shit?

    it would be better if you discussed the GHG, land-use, and sanitary aspects of food production separately.

    The key, of coure, is to focus on the “externalities” of food production per calorie produced, not on aesthetic values. Anecdote: The family farmers near my Wisconsin place gave their cows open access to waterways, for example, which they crapped in and generally tore the hell out of. Back in the day, those creeks held trout, but not any more. I doubt factory-farming those milk cows would have been nearly as hard on the local watershed.

  39. Those bizarrely-shaped, softball-sized reddish things they sell as strawberries at the supermarket scare the hell out of me.

    Nothin’ scary about ’em. They just don’t “burst” with flavor, to say the least.

  40. “The question is, what happens to that shit?”

    on a family farm, everything useful gets used. they have crops that need to be fertilized. but an industrial cow “farm” (?) is an instance of mono-culture. they just do cows so there are no crops to fertilize so the shit is just waste. read pollan.

  41. I don’t think everyone in favor of local foods is advocating a return to subsistence farming or is a neo-luddite;

    You have not been yet in Santa Cruz, CA… Everyone here is a neo-luddite of one sort or another, and equally obnoxious.

    By the way, Lou Dobbs already figured out that the culprits for the Salmonella outbreak are Mexican tomatoes… Because, like, everyone knows Mexicans are dirty and take “our” jobs…

  42. on a family farm, everything useful gets used.

    You’ve never really been on a family farm, have you? I have. At best, the manure gets spread on a field, where, depending on the field, some of it will run off into the nearest watershed. At worst, it just sort of, piles up. They were having real problems in the area of Wisconsin where I lived with contaminated groundwater, and there was nothing but family farms for miles.

  43. no crops to fertilize so the shit is just waste

    It’s all sold off for fertilizer of one kind or another. No waste.

  44. The South Carolina Farmer’s Market (Columbia) has been surpassed in quality, selection, and freshness by the farmers (many Mexican-American) at US1/Red Barn Flea Markets.

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