The price of tomato at the farmers sector or grocery store store have the right to seem mysteriously random. Erratic. All over the place. Important puzzling.

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There space tomatoes imported from Mexico for $1.99 at the bodega about the edge from the office; there are organic heirlooms for $6 a lb at Mario Batali’s sophisticated Italian grocery store, Eataly, alongside Romas marketing for $2 a pound; and the hydroponic tomato on-the-vine indigenous Canada space $3.99 a lb at Fairway. At the Union Square Greenmarket on a current Saturday, prices among heirloom tomatoes alone ranged native $3 come $5 a pound.

Where carry out these numbers come from? Why are the price so different? And once I purchase a pound, where is most of that money going?


Prices will vary! picture by note Weinberg So i posed the question to Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How modern Industrial agriculture Destroyed Our many Alluring Fruit, figuring the if anyone had the answer, it would be him.

But that answer, i should have actually known, does not exist: “It would be impossible to nail down,” the told me. “It counts a lot of on the form of tomato <...> Hydroponic, greenhouse manufacturing is really different from ar production; organic manufacturing of food is really different 보다 chemical production, therefore it’s an extremely hard to draw to one conclusion.”

Tomatoes: they’re complicated. as soon as they arrive at the market in new York in beforehand July, they"re often much an ext expensive than I remember native the year before. Is this pint of neighborhood heirlooms really “worth” $8.75?

Whereas I deserve to understand why some produce is costly—fragile berries, the very first peas that spring, mangosteens transport in native Thailand—tomatoes—which are sometimes so cheap!—are a puzzle. How have the right to the same kind of fruit offer for less than $2 a pound and also actually draw a profit?

But if the pricing behind various types of tomatoes can be confounding to those of united state who don’t live and also breathe farm economics, “random” that is not. Digging a little bit deeper right into the various little and huge costs farmer incur—and the components (like weather, imports from bordering countries, the supply and demand of grocery store stores) that impact what they do per acre—offers a glimpse right into the deeply complex economic Jenga the farmers beat every season, however that, till now, ns hadn’t thought enough about.

The price at the grocery store store and market might still make me hesitate—but, taking every one of the overwhelming expenses into account, what"s many surprising is the these tomato don’t price even more.

Let’s start at the the smallest level—the local tomato farmer at your farmers industry (okay, in this case, our farmers market), who’s most likely selling his tomatoes for significantly much more than the people you discover at your local supermarket or corner store.

On Tim Stark’s 58-acre Eckerton Hill farm yard in Berks County, Pennsylvania, he monitor 40,000 tomato plants the end in the field and 1,600 under lightweight covers known as high tunnels (think of these together makeshift, unheated greenhouses). He has actually a mortgage and insurance ~ above the farm; he needs to workers come pay; he has the transportation costs of happen the tomato to the market; the spends between $4000 and also $5000 every couple of weeks on the box the tomatoes travel in (some of these he reuses, when others walk to customers or, an ext likely, restaurants, who might or may not return them); he payment $1,500 in seed per year.

But of every these costs, and throughout various species of growers, “by and far away, the greatest cost affiliated in tomato production is labor,” Barry Estabrook said me. Unlike tomato grown for processing, i m sorry ripen in ~ once and also can be harvest by machine, fresh tomatoes space hand-picked as the fruit ripen over the season. Through such a labor-intensive crop, it means that, “if you buying a tomato because that $3 a pound, that really job that’s the biggest expense for the farmer.”

At Eckerton Hill Farm, Tim has actually over 25 workers in the field, planting, tending, harvesting, and then pack his tomatoes. Labor is “just huge,” he said, estimating the he spends $20,000 per week in labor costs, which, critical year, totaled $350,000 (and that’s before he take away workers’ comp—insurance that protects job in situation of injury ~ above the job— right into account).

He also employs some of his best workers year-round, harvesting plants that just break also at best, through the purpose of incentivizing the employees he trusts to stay on for the next summer. “If it weren’t for the tomatoes,” Tim said me, “we wouldn’t also do the various other stuff.” due to the fact that tomatoes are profitable for many tiny farmers who offer in new York: In a great year, the yield per plant is high; plus, Tim said, tomatoes room heavy—just a couple of his massive heirlooms include up quickly—and he is noticed the Greenmarket shoppers space willing come buy a the majority of them during peak season.

But come ensure the tomatoes do carry a profit, little farms must make every acre—and every plant—count. Zaid Kurdieh that Norwich grasslands Farm, an 80-acre farm that additionally has a stand at Union Square’s Saturday market, depends on employees to trellise, prune, and also conduct leaf tests that monitor the plants’ nutrient uptake. With not so much invested in each and also every plant, larger farms have some breathing room; but for Zaid, he have to prioritize the health and quality that his plants very first and foremost—and that means a greater cost per unit.

The tomatoes the require even more manpower 보다 others come in ~ a greater cost: Those small cherry tomatoes? Tim approximates that out of every the tomato-picking excellent at Eckerton Hill, seventy-five percent is because that the cherries. No wonder they’re more expensive; $5 per pint, occasionally more. I could eat them all in one sitting, in 30 minutes, without ever thinking about how lengthy it must have actually taken because that someone come pluck every one.

Beyond labor, over there are additionally losses to account for. Zaid could lose 20% of his delicate, thin-skinned heirlooms throughout the 200-mile pilgrimage from Norwich, brand-new York to Manhattan.

And in the context of every one of these costs, from labor to losses come nitty-gritty farm yard expenses and also overhead, farmers favor Tim and also Zaid have to collection a price that will certainly be competitive in the context of the industry and that will leave them with something to take it home.


The method that price is calculated? An organic tomato farmer at the McCarren Park Greenmarket in Brooklyn defined walking v the market an initial thing in the morning to emergence at the non-organic prices and also make certain his own was no prohibitively higher. And Tim told me the his price has increased only very gradually over the two decades he’s been in business. As soon as he began to think about his typical of living and the kids he to be going to send to university (his daughter simply started her student in the first year year this fall), he “started come think, if ns going to work like that”—all day, every day, morning come night, late might to so late September—”I have to make something.”

“For a pair of mainly a year,” when the harvest is great and customers are paying everything price the sets, “you feel prefer a fat cat and you’re overcharging,” Tim said. “But those weeks, she trying to acquire ahead, to anticipate for hefty rains following year, or for late blight.”



as the season—or even the day—goes on, small farmers have the prerogative to adjust their prices accordingly—to market at a price that, together Zaid put it, will move the produce yet not make a profit. In new York this month, very hot temperatures brought about a huge variety of tomatoes to ripen all at once, which method farmers have much more on your hands they can confidently sell. The heirlooms selling for $3 a pound (and advertised together “best price in town”) in ~ the industry on a current Saturday? The farmers at the Locust Grove stand told me they were trying to get rid of them: “We’ve just got to move them.”

But if you’re one more kind of tomato grower—one who invested in hydroponic framework for farming tomatoes in high-tech greenhouses year-round—you don’t have actually the option to set your own price in ~ the retail level. The price per pound probably hovers somewhere between the heirlooms and also the Romas, and also they’re your most expensive choice in the winter.

Hydroponic farmers need to account because that labor, as we know, and also packaging costs, but also the utilities unique to the greenhouse industry: the power it takes to keep a 42-acre greenhouse in between 70 to 73 levels year-round, as they execute at Backyard ranches in Maine.

“The tomato market is very volatile,” said Paul Lightfoot, the founder that BrightFarms, a agency that finances, builds, and also operates greenhouses (currently, three) close to supermarkets. Also though BrightFarm’s tomatoes are sold to supermarkets, their company is not large enough to skew prices. “The people setup prices room those that are creating in Canada in the summer and Mexico in the winter (and in some cases, it’s the same suppliers that run in both places).”


as soon as Canadian tomato growers are creating deep right into the fall and also Mexican tomato growers harvest at an early stage in the winter, the two seasons overlap, there’s a huge excess that tomato supply, “the bar drops down, and it’s a complete mess. A many tomatoes will be marketed at super-low prices and also it’s reflect in the marketplace.” The very-cheap tomato you discover at keep in December are more than likely a an outcome of wealth of fruit indigenous Mexico and also Canada. And someone, what is paying because that it.

Maybe the someone is a reasonably small guy, choose BrightFarm or Backyard Farms—but it"s additionally large-scale growers in Florida, the state that produces nearly half of the fresh tomatoes in the U.S., in ~ a total value of much more than $500 million, and ships them almost everywhere the country. It"s thanks to Florida the I have the right to have a field-grown residential tomato that"s cheaper than the greenhouse-grown varieties to stir into to my eggs in January. (I understand this is no a seasonal behavior; I additionally know that I must sometimes carry out it anyway—an act of winter self-care.)

unless you’re buying directly from the farmer at the farmers market, the farmer is getting very tiny of the price the you pay for that tomato.

With that kind of sector dominance, you’d think that the prices would certainly reflect the price to farmers. Yet in reality, Barry explained, these farmers are simply as sinner to the supply and demand of the sector as any. "In a way, growing tomato commercially is type of favor playing a roulette wheel, that said. "Because you’re completing against, at least in the wintertime, Mexico and also greenhouse tomatoes. Therefore if Mexico is having a substantial crop, frequently Florida farmers won’t also harvest—the tomatoes will frequently just be allowed to rot. They’re waiting for the week once something loss the mexico crop and also their tomatoes will become valuable."

All of these pricing variables mean that, as Barry said me, “unless she buying straight from the farmer in ~ the farmer market, the farmer is obtaining very small of the price the you salary for that tomato. So, through an industrial winter tomato in Florida, the worker may get as small as two cents a pound, yet the farmer could only be getting a couple of dollars a pound.” No one is acquiring paid much.

photo by James Ransom In the words of Reggie Brown, Manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and Exchange, “the retail price has very small to carry out with the price to the farmer in ~ all.” Tomato “farmers that are marketing to wholesalers”—and this includes the smaller sized BrightFarms and also Backyard farms of the industry—”are taking care of a completely different mechanism than regional farmers who are marketing at markets.” The prices space lower, yet it’s no on their own accord and also in some ways, these farmers are embroiled in a scarier, more amorphous system.

The people setting prices are those that are producing in Canada in the summer and also Mexico in the winter.

Unlike at the farmer market, wherein a vendor might reduced the price in ~ the finish of the day in stimulate to move his develop faster (Tim of Eckerton Hill wants to market as lot as feasible in bespeak to deliver the many recently-picked fruit), a massive Florida farmer doesn’t have that option: grocery stores, Reggie called me, have actually systematically identified how plenty of tomatoes come stock and at what price. They’ve “learned to control the benefit of the shelf an are they have—to regulate the price that the product and know that, at that price, the tomatoes will leave the store.”

“The farmer takes home a very tiny share that the cost of the tomato as soon as you as a client buy that in a sleeve store.” farmers “just don’t obtain much of it, also though the grower takes every the risks and invests his funding to develop the crop.”

“It’s very tough business and also quite honestly, I’m really concerned that because of income pressures—and the consumer room pretty oblivious to where the tomato come from—in the next decade or less, us will lose the volume to develop these points in the U.S.,” which, together Reggie admitted, is “a scary place to be in.”

In the next decade or less, us will shed the capacity to develop in the U.S. .

What, exactly, space the difficult parts? Well, yes sir the price of labor, i beg your pardon Zhengfei Guan, an Assistant Professor at the university of Florida Gulf coast Research and Education Center, approximated was almost 20% that the around $10,000-per-acre operating expense on a Florida tomato farm. Barry Estabrook, whose publication Tomatoland was, in part, one exposé the working problems in the Florida tomato fields, mentioned that the “industry has actually really cleaned increase its act. It’s unable to do from the many repressive sector of farming to among the most progressive.” (He referred to as the working conditions in Mexico, on the other hand, “hideous.”)

and also then, there room the Florida-specific expenses that tomato farmers in new England or growing in greenhouses rather of fields would not likely incur: prefer wet years the depress the totality harvest, or rampant, invasive pests, which, follow to the Florida Crop/Pest management Profiles: Tomatoes, account for virtually 25% lose in fresh sector tomatoes.

And that way that a far-reaching amount of capital goes to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and fumigants (pesticides applied to soil), too. The 2007-2008 Production spending plan for tomato in Southwest Florida shows that the estimated expense for manufacturing of one acre accounts for about 40% of all pre-harvest costs. Those aren’t costs that an necessary farmer in brand-new England has to take right into account, even if that or she has actually to control pests and also blight in other ways.

photograph by James Ransom and also then there are the huge costs of shipping across the country. The tomatoes the do gain shipped, states the Crop/Management Profile, i m sorry serves as a guide for farmers, ”must be essentially blemish totally free to qualify together sellable.” while a regional farmer might be able to take a tomato with catface and also sell it in ~ the market, a grocery store is not going to stock it. A tomato the doesn"t make the cut could be laid to waste in the ar or scrapped through the store prior to it it s okay to the shelf.

Perhaps the propensity to balk at the price of tomato comes down to a wider-reaching demand for perfect-looking develop for as tiny money as possible.

But to start to understand, even on a superficial level, every little thing it take away to get the tomato to its current spot top top the supermarket shelf—the labor, the packaging, the transportation, the stakes, the trellises, the list goes on and also on—makes short prices even more startling 보다 the high.

photograph by note Weinberg i think around shopping at the farmers market—paying $5 a pound for tomatoes, knowing that it"s going straight to the farmer and also even then, the he or she might be having actually a tough time do a profit—and climate I begin to wonder just how a $2-a-pound tomato from the corner store can even begin to cover prices of production. Cheap becomes much more alarming than expensive.

So this is my difficulty to myself: to think a little more about where my tomatoes come from prior to complaining around their high price; to inquiry why some room so cheap and also who that is benefitting; and to usage them well—because therefore many people did so much work to acquire them come me.

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