It’s Here! The Flavorful, Sustainable Winter Tomato

The tomatoes we typically see in supermarkets this time of year are trucked in from Florida and beyond and bred to withstand the rigors of the journey to our plates. As products of industrial agriculture, they’re subpar by every measure. But, as Allison Aubrey reports for NPR, locally-grown, sustainably-produced, tasty tomatoes can now be found year-round even in cold winter regions of the country.

Some farmers have started to grow tomatoes in greenhouses using what’s known as hydroponics, where plants are grown in a nutrient solution as opposed to soil. “Everything that a tomato normally gets from the soil — including fertilizer and nutrients like calcium and iron — are instead being fed to these tomato plants directly through the hose,” i.e. the irrigation line, Aubrey explains. Paul Mock, a hydroponics farmer in West Virginia, compared it to a hospital IV line.

Up until recently, hydroponic tomatoes had been known to be as tasteless as conventionally grown varieties. But Mock, for one, has discovered that he can develop the flavor in his tomatoes by allowing them to ripen before harvesting. “If we were to pick a tomato green and allow it to ripen,” he said, “it would taste no better than a shipped tomato.” Aubrey adds, the “big advantage Mock has is that his customers are all nearby.”

The fact that hydroponic farming contributes to local food systems is just the first of the ways in which it scores for sustainability.

Only a 10th of the water used to grow conventional crops is required in hydroponic farming, wrote Glenn Collins for the New York Times last year, and yet its yields are 10 times greater. In a well-controlled hydroponic greenhouse environment, moreover, farmers are able to grow crops without the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Not everyone, however, is sold on hydroponic farming. Acknowledging the fact that soil contains billions of organisms that contribute to the growth of plants, Ben Raskin of the Soil Association says that he suspects that “if you tried to survive purely on hydroponically grown food, you’d quickly find your body wasn’t getting everything it needs.” In addition, Raskin argues, the nutrients obtained by the plants from the water “have to come from somewhere. Whatever you add — nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, copper, boron — this stuff doesn’t just ‘appear.’ It has to be produced or mined. It’s the wrong approach in terms of sustainability.”

It would appear he has a point. In which case, one alternative might be aquaponics, which crosses aquaculture with hydroponics. Aquaponics, according to The Aquaponic Source, “is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, re-circulating ecosystem using natural bacterial cycles to convert fish wastes to plant nutrients.” In aquaponics, there is no “need to discard any water or solid waste or to add chemical fertilizers.” It sure sounds ideal.

Decades of developments in food production, storage and distribution have led us to expect to be able to buy fresh any food at any time of the year, at enormous expense to the environment as well as to the quality of the food grown. At least hydroponic farming addresses some of the issues, and apparently it can deliver a pretty flavorful tomato, but no one’s arguing that it’s the answer to all our problems.

 

Related Stories:

Mystery of the Very Red But Tasteless Tomato Solved!

‘I Don’t Get Paid a Single Cent for Flavor’

Big Ag! Small Farms Make You Sick

Photo from Thinkstock

100 comments

Daniel Garcia
Daniel Garcia3 years ago

---my message was cut off, providing the last paragraph reproduced below once more----

The plant is a project that will never finish in upgrades and will always just keep improving. I know this because I have been in there, I have seen their projects come from the planning pages at my university into practice, and I have been influenced to help create my own little project and have since become director of a community farm at my university. The most exciting part of that endeavor is trying to figure out where it will head next, what improvements will be made and how we will make it while being sustainable and providing food in the middle of a food desert.

Daniel Garcia
Daniel Garcia3 years ago

http://www.plantchicago.com/

above is a perfect example of what hydroponic farms can eventually become. It was a project started by a couple enterprising people that acquired an old meatpacking plant that was abandoned and have since made it into a hydroponics project that is slowly hiring people from the community and feeding the community with fresh food year round, and the project is expanding to even providing their own energy and powering the community around using waste that would be expensive for other industries to discard in order to generate electricity, compost into new soil rich in nutrients and generate a natural fertilizer (the discard in this case are the waste hops from beer brewers). They have a tilapia farm, the water from the tilapia tanks go through some of the greens which takes the waste from the fish as nutrients to grow and clean the water in the process and eventually makes it back to the tilapia as clean water, and thus it is a cycle.

The plant is a project that will never finish in upgrades and will always just keep improving. I know this because I have been in there, I have seen their projects come from the planning pages at my university into practice, and I have been influenced to help create my own little project and have since become director of a community farm at my university. The most exciting part of that endeavor is trying to figure out where it will head next, what improvements will be made and how we will make it while being s

Lynn D.
Lynn D.3 years ago

Thanks for info.........

Dorlinda Chong
Dorlinda Chong3 years ago

Anyone who's grown tomatoes knows that you can't expect them to develop any flavor if you pick them before they enter the sugar stage, but as for tasteless hydroponic tomatoes, hydroponics has come a long way since the early days. The secret of a good tasting hydroponic tomato is the secret to any good tasting tomato --the nutrients in the water/soil. Since the nutrient levels of our food has declined from the 1920's to the 40's, and from the 40's to the '70's, and the 70's to the present, one would think we would have figured out that the so-called 'nitrogen based fertilizers' are nothing more than growth forcers, and forcing anything to grow larger, faster than normal, whether tomatoes or chickens, is not healthy sustainable, or, in fact actually FERTILIZING. True fertilizing is replacing the nutrients in the soil/water that the crop took out of it. Combined with the astronomical increase of processed foods containing High Fructose Corn Syrup, and iodine valant elements like chlorine and fluoride (in the water), and bromide (in baked goods), and our more sedentary lifestyle, and it is no wonder we are growing more and more obese.

Beth M.
Beth M.3 years ago

Interesting.

Mar M.
Mar Mcneil3 years ago

heck I say we all stop planting grass and start planting our own seeds.... all that grass planting and then days later we cut it all down. A waste of good soil and energy and effort in this crazy Non Recession Proof Cash Strapped World... This type of farming, well it equates to having more than one way to clean a fish! This has merit. And more sooner rather than later, if the global economy does not enhance its food efforts and clean up the water and stop the pollution, we may need to seek these types of sources for future food resources. Alternative Energy and Alternative Farming Methods.... all pluses ... BIG PLUS!!!

Hayley Cruze
Hayley C.3 years ago

Thanks!

Sandra C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks

Ela V.
Ela V.3 years ago

sounds interesting...