Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Yesterday I received a call from someone in Kansas looking to buy homegrown tomatoes, which is not uncommon these days. After this year’s torrential downpours throughout the spring and summer, it seems like most gardeners and farmers in the area have experienced innumerable losses, especially tomatoes. Our surplus of heirlooms–survivors that persevered through the floods of 2015–draw customers not only from the neighborhood but from miles away.
The man who called asked what kinds of tomatoes I had, and I told him, “Cherokee Purples, Missouri Pink Love Apples, Tappy’s Heritage Reds, Black Plums. All heirlooms.”
“How much?” he asked.
“$2.00 a pound,” I replied. He knew it was a steal. I asked him how many tomatoes he needed and he said all of them.
“I sell about 150 pounds a day,” the man told me, “so I need everything you have ASAP.”
“I’ll see what I have and I’ll call you back,” I said, having no intention of calling him back.
I was blown away that this guy had the gall to straight up tell me he was buying my tomatoes to make a profit for himself. Judging from the prices of tomatoes at roadside stands, farmer’s markets, and the grocery store, homegrown tomatoes go for $3.50-$5.00 per pound, with locally grown, organic, non-GMO, heirloom tomatoes such as my own usually starting at $5.00 a pound. Of course he would make money, and I would probably make more money, too. He would buy everything I have so I wouldn’t have to worry about not selling tomatoes and having them go bad. I also would not have to wait around at home for buyers to trickle through, selling my tomatoes one-by-one.
But that’s not why I do this. I am obviously not trying to get rich, or I would charge supermarket prices. I feel like what we are doing here–and I say “we” because I absolutely could not have done this without my parents helping me grow and sell–is important. It’s simple, but it’s important. If I sell all my produce to a middleman who takes it out to Johnson County to sell to rich suburbanites who can pay seven bucks a pound for organic tomatoes, I am denying my neighbors access to affordable, healthy food. I called the middleman back to tell him this, that I wouldn’t be selling him anything because my neighborhood deserves better, and I have an obligation to my community, and I have repeat customers to think of, and that if he wanted 150 pounds of tomatoes he should have grown them himself, etcetera, etcetera, but he didn’t answer and didn’t return my call.
I am not saying that my neighbors feel quite the same way about our little farm stand. Sure, they want homegrown tomatoes, but only “round, red ones” or “Beefsteaks”. My tomatoes that are every shade of pink, that fade from green to purple, that are a rainbow of maroon and black and orange and brown, these do not please most customers. The buyers are afraid of the large tomatoes–over a pound-and-a-half each!–that bulge and crease and have nubs and growths. They are wary of the small tomatoes the shape of Romas because they don’t like Romas. “These aren’t Romas,” I say. “These are Black Plum heirlooms,” I say. While it usually makes no difference, I consider it a success when people try the strange looking tomatoes, even if I have to give them away for free.
Every time I sell a tomato that isn’t perfectly red and round, an heirloom whose unique genetic traits have been valued enough to have their seeds saved and passed down throughout generations, I feel like I am pulling a brick out of the wall of the industrial food complex. Yes, my babies might look a little alien to the untrained eye, but that’s because they weren’t bred for being packed neatly in shipping containers to be sent thousands of miles away. Their skin is not thick, their shapes not uniform, but they taste a million times better than those watery, mealy, hot house tomatoes trucked in to the supermarket. They actually taste like tomatoes.
Even the buyers who at first find my rainbow coalition tomatoes slightly daunting often become repeat customers, and sacrificing these genuine interactions with neighbors to turn a profit for a middleman is something I refuse to do. The interactions are sometimes awkward, like when multiple people say they have been watching our property since we have moved in, seeing what we plant, examining how well we upkeep the place. Or when one lady wanted a tour of the house to see how it had changed since the previous owner died. But for the most part it is pretty cool to see just how many people care about the work we have put into the garden and want to support our tomato enterprise. I love seeing people come through again and again, saying they have been driving by hoping the tomato sign will be out front, or that they loved our tomatoes and so did their families.
Some days I feel like the whole thing is so ridiculous. I am not doing anything anyone else couldn’t do. I bought some tomato seeds, planted them in a seed tray, transplanted them into pots and then eventually into the ground. Then the plants grew and produced tomatoes and I picked said tomatoes (for the record, anytime I say “I” I actually mean “kind of me but mostly my mom”). One packet of tomato seeds cost less than two dollars, and the incidental costs of seed trays and seedling pots probably added up to less than ten dollars altogether. From one packet of seeds I grew fifty plants, selling off half of the seedlings, making back my tomato money before I even had a tomato to show for it. It feels almost criminal to even charge people for the tomatoes, because at this point it’s pure profit, but I justify it by keeping my prices low enough that some people feel the need to tip me because I’m “undercharging” them. It’s all just kind of bizarre and hilarious that we humans are taking chances on each other–the customers taking the chance that the tomato stand is actually a lure for a serial killer’s death trap and us taking the chance that these tomato lovers are casing the joint to rob us blind–all in the name of a simple little fruit that anyone could grow.
But they didn’t grow them, and that’s the point, I guess. At least that’s what my family and friends and customers say: “I could have grown tomatoes, but I didn’t, and you did.” It’s been a beautiful and terrifying biological and sociological experiment, from thinking that none of the seeds would germinate, or all of the seedlings would die, or that the rain would take away all the young plants, to having strangers willing to walk up to our door at all hours of the day and night just to get their hands on some homegrown tomatoes. So in the end I must give the people what they want: more ‘maters.