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Locally grown round red slicers.

Round and red, and kind of ordinary looking, the slicing tomatoes in your CSA share box a few weeks ago didn’t seem very special, did they? But they are, and what made this year’s crop different is the way it was grown — in pots of soil, not directly in the ground. (The variety itself, Florida 47, is a commercial hybrid that’s been around for a long time, and is known as a good producing plant.)

Dan’s field of tomatoes in pots.

Farmer Dan raised the Florida 47s one plant per container, dozens of rows marching across a field blanketed with shiny black landscaping cloth, hundreds of staked tomatoes filling up three and a half acres. Why grow in pots? Because the land Dan had to use for growing, across from the Keys Gate Market Garden, was former swampland filled in with rock and even chunks of concrete, thin soil supporting only weeds. “Seven, eight, ten feet of fill instead of soil, and it was absolutely impossible to grow anything there,” Dan explained. Thus hundreds of pots, growing plant nursery style — a quick solution to the no-soil problem. (Plus, it was also the quickest way to get the operation certified organic.)

Read the fine print. This tomato came from Mexico. And people bought it because it’s cheap.

The tomatoes were delicious and beautiful, but financially the crop was a disaster. Startup costs were much higher than if he had planted directly into a fertile field. The potted plants required a lot of input — fertilizer and insect control sprays — plus you have to take into account the cost of soil, pots, landscaping cloth, irrigation and labor. “It cost me seventeen thousand dollars gross to set up, and my net was damn near nothing,” Dan grumbled.

Just as Dan was starting to harvest a few weeks ago, round red organic tomatoes from Mexico flooded the local market. (You might have seen them at area stores.) Thanks to NAFTA, the dollar-peso exchange rate, and low labor costs, organic tomatoes from Mexico were wholesaling for a lot less than what Dan was asking for.

No way he could make a profit. And he was stuck with bushels of tomatoes he had to unload. So he sold them at cost to farmer Margie of Bee Heaven Farm, and everybody in her CSA, large and small shares alike, got round red tomatoes. And, there’s Florida 47s to be had at the Keys Gate Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and Pinecrest Gardens Farmers Market on Sundays, while they last.

Tomatoes left to rot.

It’s not just organic growers who gambled and lost hard this season. I saw a field off Krome Ave. and SW 168 St. where the grower didn’t even bother harvesting his tomatoes. He left his crop to rot on the vines. Half the field was brown and dead, like it went through the worst freeze — and in the absence of recent cold weather, a sign it had been doused with herbicide. Why bother to spend more for labor to pick the crop when he was already in the hole raising it? (Food activists may want to chime in about holding off on chemicals, and allowing people to come glean fields to salvage food.)

Mexican produce aside, growing organic tomatoes in pots was an interesting experiment, but not one Dan cares to repeat any time soon. “It’s not sustainable,” he said. He is sticking with growing slightly more profitable green beans grown in a field of real dirt. It’s a gamble he knows how to win a bit better, providing there’s no hard winter freezes. “You want to know how to make a little money in farming?” Dan asked. “Start with a LOT of money.” And he laughed long and hard at his familiar joke.

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