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Clinging to the Vine : Tomato Growers Have Learned to Specialize to Survive

August 23, 1990|KITTY MORSE

In coming weeks, consumers will continue to find vine-ripened North County tomatoes plentiful at their grocery stores and roadside produce stands. Although tomatoes are produced year-round, this is the natural harvest season.

Even though shoppers should have little trouble finding good tomatoes, North County growers in recent years have been committing less and less acreage to the crop. Competition among local growers, from Mexican producers and, more recently, from land developers, has caused many farmers to roll back tomato production.

Still, tomatoes were a $33-million crop in San Diego County last year. To cope with the changing market, many growers are limiting their crops to specialty tomatoes, such as Romas, that are gaining favor among local consumers.

Alan Yasukochi of Valley Heights Farms in Oceanside is a third-generation farmer who has seen his tomato acreage decrease from 800 to 150 over the past decade.

"Labor and water costs have gone up so much that we can't compete anymore," he said.

Yasukochi specializes in Romas, the medium-size, firm-fleshed plum tomatoes grown mainly for canning, as well as the ever-popular cherry tomato. He believes the small fruits have the best flavor.

Andrea Peterson of Peterson Specialty Produce in Fallbrook agrees with Yasukochi on the market slump: "Growing commercial tomatoes is the pits," she said. "The bottom has really fallen out of the tomato market in North County."

Peterson said she is surviving because she produces only organically grown fruit, which is now in great demand. She keeps pests at bay by spraying her plants with Safer brand soap or Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that kills leaf-eating caterpillars. Both methods are recommended by California Certified Organic Farmers.

"Organic tomatoes are more expensive to produce, but we get a better price for them," Peterson said. "Actually, smaller operations like mine, bound for the specialty market, are doing better than the larger ones."

Peterson's acre of organic tomatoes includes small yellow pears, delicate yellow ovals (which are "very sweet") and currant-size reds and yellows, favored by restaurant chefs.

"We grow things that are pretty hardy since we're organic," she said. One of her favorites is the large Lemon Boy, a sweet, juicy, low-acid variety.

Both Peterson and Yasukochi ship only vine-ripened tomatoes. Most grocery store tomatoes are picked early, then given an application of ethylene, a natural gas emitted by tomatoes, to induce ripening. Industry specialists hasten to add that the process does not alter the tomato's flavor.

Most tomato lovers agree that the best-tasting fruit has been vine-ripened, but, since tomatoes bruise easily during handling, shipping it fully ripe is difficult.

Tomatoes are ideally suited for the calorie- and cholesterol-conscious. They contain no cholesterol, and a tomato weighing 150 grams has only 35 calories but 40% of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C, and 20% of Vitamin A.

To savor tomatoes at their peak, do not refrigerate them, the California Tomato Board says. They will taste best when kept at room temperature (55 to 70 F). They can be refrigerated for a few days after fully ripe.

WHERE TO GET THEM

Among the places in North County to buy fresh-picked tomatoes:

Peterson Specialty Produce. 439-6466. 5910 Camino Baja Cerro, Fallbrook, 92028. Sells wholesale from Fallbrook and retail from the Vista Farmer's Market, 8-11 a.m. Saturday, Eucalyptus and Escondido avenues. Organic cherry tomatoes are $1 a pint, organic yellow pears are $1 for half a pint at the farmer's market.

Alan Yasukochi, Valley Heights Farms. 757-5914. 651 Douglas Drive, San Luis Rey, 92068. Sells wholesale out of San Luis Rey and from an Oceanside stand, at entrance to drive-in near Fireside Drive off Mission Avenue. Open daily 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. until the end of August. Large red tomatoes sell for 75 cents a pound.

Francisco Valdivia, wholesale grower. 729-4155. 3901 Linmar Lane, Carlsbad 92008. Sells wholesale from Carlsbad and retail at farmer's markets in Vista, San Marcos, Escondido and Del Mar. Small yellow ovals and large yellow tomatoes sell for about 50 cents a basket at the markets. Valdivia also has a stand at 13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte in Rancho Bernardo (next to the Bernardo Winery).

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