Ending the Tyranny of Tasteless Tomatoes 1

Growing the Tomato Independence Project

Behold the lowly tomato. Cast for centuries as nothing more than a common garden vegetable, its true identity as a fruit kept hidden through the ages. Imprisoned by the very vines that gave it life, until ransomed by ripeness. Then shuttered away in case lots and shipped to distant warehouses, only to be crushed, diced, peeled, or worse yet, pureed and stuffed into cans and jars for ignoble display on supermarket shelves. Is it any wonder the tomato suffers from low self-esteem?

Enter the Treasure Valley Food Coalition (TVFC), formed in 2010 to try and engage the area population in a conversation about the resilience, integrity and economic development of our local food system.

“It was very clear that the global, corporate approach to agriculture was becoming increasingly problematic,” says Susan Medlin, treasurer for TVFC’s all-volunteer board. “With waves of recalls, everything from spinach to ground beef, and lots of other issues, we thought somebody should start thinking about how much of what we’re growing in our wonderfully fertile, agricultural valley was actually being consumed here.”

A meta-data analysis commissioned by TVFC produced some startling conclusions. Typically, about three percent of the food consumed in a given area is locally produced, but that figure may be even less in the Treasure Valley.

“There is a huge investment in cattle-related crops, whether it’s for beef or milk production, and what’s left is mostly onions and sugar beets,” says Medlin. “All in all, more than 85 percent of the valley’s beef and milk products leave the state. So we decided what was needed was a more hands-on, grassroots approach.”

The first thing they did was convince the state legislature to declare 2011 The Year of Idaho Food.

“That was really our first attempt to raise awareness of the local food situation and engage the larger community in a conversation about food,” says Medlin.

Through some informal research they learned that institutional food buyers had a list of local items they would be happy to purchase if they were available in quantities that would fill their needs. First on the list was apples, and second was tomatoes. It turns out that 95 percent of all the fresh tomatoes consumed in the Treasure Valley are imported, at an estimated annual cost of $15 million, and that doesn’t include all the preserved and value-added tomato products we bring in as well.

“We often refer to tomatoes as a gateway food when it comes to local food awareness,” Medlin says with a laugh,  “So we tried to get everyone growing tomatoes.”

In the summer of 2012 the TVFC began building a group of nursery partners around the valley, and put together event schedules with each of them. Every Tuesday, all summer long, was Tomato Tuesday. There were classes on tomato plants, tomato seeds, tomato diseases, and there were tomato tastings and salsa festivals. Packets containing four varieties of tomato seeds, along with growing instructions, were distributed at each class. Boise ad firm Oliver Russell created an iconic logo for the newly christened Tomato Independence Project (TIP), and they sold t-shirts with their tag line, “Ending the Tyranny of Tasteless Tomatoes,” emblazoned on the back.

They capped off each season with a community read, featuring various tomato writers. In 2013, they brought in Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit. He packed the Jordan Ballroom at Boise State and another lecture at the University of Idaho. The book made the freshman reading list at both universities and the College of Western Idaho, and was used as a text in the Foundations classes at Boise State, as well as several classes at the College of Idaho.

The summer of 2014 saw fewer TIP events, but that’s not to say the tomato had run its course by any means. The movement simply evolved. Taking their campaign into the marketplace, they partnered local farmers with six valley restaurants, each of which created menu items featuring that grower’s tomatoes for a week. Instead of weekly classes, the nurseries each decided to pick a signature tomato event for the summer. For example, North End Organic Nursery holds a salsa festival, with competitions at both professional and amateur levels. Edwards Greenhouse continues its enormously popular tomato tasting with the goal of reaching 100 different varieties. Last year also marked the emergence of Franz Witte’s infamous Bloody Mary Contest, an event that had more humble beginnings the summer before.

“In the spring of 2013 we had a meeting with the nurseries, and we were all throwing out ideas,” says Medlin. “I don’t remember exactly how the Bloody Mary idea came up, but we all said, ‘Hear! Hear!’ That first year members of the group came up with our own takes on the drink. We juiced up some fresh tomatoes and everyone had a ball. Then we realized we could do this much better.”

The second time around they recruited bartenders from The Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise, and from Bardenay and Rice in Eagle, and 3 Girls Catering jumped on board with a drink of their own. The Modern took home top honors, along with a $500 gift certificate to Franz Witte, which they used for several colorful planters that now decorate their outside seating area. All the participants got $100 certificates, and there were even door prizes in the form of funky plastic flamingos. Add a dash of live jazz and you have one wildly successful event.

The end of the 2014 season saw the group’s first departure from tomatoes when they brought in representatives from the California Olive Oil Council and held a huge tasting event at the Visual Arts Collective in Garden City.

“The olive oil event really gave us a chance to broaden our conversation. When we talk about local food, we can’t get too narrow,” Medlin says, laughing. “We don’t want people to think we’ve gone off the deep end and that all you can eat is tomatoes. Of course it started there for us, but we’re hoping that it will go way beyond that.”

The whole campaign kicked off again at the beginning of this year’s tomato growing season. A further evolution resulted in Tomato Tuesday Tidbits where fans of the Tomato Independence Project Facebook page receive weekly facts that are all focused on what else—tomatoes. Take note that the third edition of Franz Witte’s Bloody Mary Contest is set for August 26, with The Modern returning to defend its 2014 title, and the ever-popular tomato tasting at Edwards Greenhouse will take place in September as part of their Harvest Festival.

The farmer/restaurant partnership concept is taking on a more official tone. The 10 participating restaurants each have actual contracts with farmers to buy produce—not just tomatoes—throughout the summer, and receive a decal for their windows from the TVFC that officially verifies they are serving locally grown food.

So, has the tyranny of tasteless tomatoes at last been vanquished?  If the veritable cornucopia of creative cuisine at TVFC-verified restaurants around the valley is any indication, we can all rest easier in the knowledge that tyranny is never, ever, in good taste.