This article originally appeared on Food52.com.
The price of tomatoes at the farmers market or grocery store can seem mysteriously random. Erratic. All over the place. Truly puzzling.
There are tomatoes imported from Mexico for $1.99 at the bodega around the corner from the Food52 office; there are organic heirlooms for $6 a pound at Mario Batali’s fancy Italian grocery store, Eataly, alongside Romas selling for $2 a pound; and the hydroponic tomatoes on-the-vine from Canada are $3.99 a pound at Fairway. At the Union Square Greenmarket on a recent Saturday, prices among heirloom tomatoes alone ranged from $3 to $5 a pound.
Where do these numbers come from? Why are the prices so different? And when I buy a pound, where is most of that money going?
Photo Credit: James Ransom
So I posed the question to Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, figuring that if anyone had the answer, it would be him.
But that answer, I should have known, does not exist: “It would be impossible to nail down,” he told me. “It depends a lot on the type of tomato […] Hydroponic, greenhouse production is very different from field production; organic production of course is very different than chemical production, so it’s very hard to draw to one conclusion.”
Tomatoes: They’re complicated. When they arrive at the market in New York in early July, they’re often much more expensive than I remember from the year before. Is this pint of local heirlooms really “worth” $8.75?
Whereas I can understand why some produce is costly—fragile berries, the first peas of spring, mangosteens shipped in from Thailand—tomatoes—which are sometimes so cheap!—are a puzzle. How can the same type of fruit sell for less than $2 a pound and actually draw a profit?
But while the pricing behind various types of tomatoes might be confounding to those of us who don’t live and breathe farm economics, “random” it is not. Digging a bit deeper into the various small and large costs farmers incur—and the factors (like weather, imports from neighboring countries, the supply and demand of grocery stores) that affect what they make per acre—offers a glimpse into the deeply complex economic Jenga that farmers play every season, but that, until now, I hadn’t thought enough about.
The prices at the grocery store and market might still make me hesitate—but, taking all of the overwhelming costs into account, what’s most surprising is that these tomatoes don’t cost even more.
Let’s start at the smallest level—the local tomato farmer at your farmers market (okay, in this case, our farmers market), who’s probably selling his tomatoes for significantly more than the ones you find at your local supermarket or corner store.
On Tim Stark’s 58-acre Eckerton Hill Farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania, he oversees 40,000 tomato plants out in the field and 1,600 under lightweight covers known as high tunnels (think of these as makeshift, unheated greenhouses). He has a mortgage and insurance on the farm; he has to workers to pay; he has the transportation costs of bringing the tomatoes to the market; he spends between $4000 and $5000 every couple of weeks on the boxes the tomatoes travel in (some of these he reuses, while others go to customers or, more likely, restaurants, who may or may not return them); he pays $1,500 in seeds per year.
“If you’re buying a tomato for $3 a pound, it’s really labor that’s the
biggest cost for the farmer.” – Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland
But of all these costs, and across various types of growers, “by and far away, the biggest cost involved in tomato production is labor,” Barry Estabrook told me. Unlike tomatoes grown for processing, which ripen at once and can be harvested by machine, fresh tomatoes are hand-picked as the fruits ripen over the season. With such a labor-intensive crop, it means that, “if you’re buying a tomato for $3 a pound, it’s really labor that’s the biggest cost for the farmer.”
At Eckerton Hill Farm, Tim has over 25 workers in the field, planting, tending, harvesting, and then packing his tomatoes. Labor is “just huge,” he said, estimating that he spends $20,000 per week in labor costs, which, last year, totaled $350,000 (and that’s before he takes workers’ comp—insurance that protects laborers in case of injury on the job— into account).
He also employs some of his best workers year-round, harvesting crops that only break even at best, with the purpose of incentivizing the workers he trusts to stay on for the next summer. “If it weren’t for the tomatoes,” Tim told me, “we wouldn’t even do the other stuff.” Because tomatoes are profitable for many small farmers who sell in New York: In a good year, the yield per plant is high; plus, Tim said, tomatoes are heavy—just a couple of his massive heirlooms add up quickly—and he’s noticed that Greenmarket shoppers are willing to buy a lot of them during peak season.
“If it weren’t for the tomatoes, we wouldn’t even grow the other stuff.”
– Tim Stark, Eckerton Hill Farm
But to ensure that tomatoes do bring a profit, small farms must make every acre—and every plant—count. Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm, an 80-acre farm that also has a stand at Union Square’s Saturday market, relies on workers to trellise, prune, and conduct leaf tests that monitor the plants’ nutrient uptake. With not so much invested in each and every plant, larger farms have some breathing room; but for Zaid, he must prioritize the health and quality of his plants first and foremost—and that means a higher cost per unit.
The tomatoes that require even more manpower than others come at a higher cost: Those little cherry tomatoes? Tim estimates that out of all the tomato-picking done at Eckerton Hill, seventy-five percent is for the cherries. No wonder they’re more expensive; $5 per pint, sometimes more. I could eat them all in one sitting, in 30 minutes, without ever thinking about how long it must have taken for someone to pluck each one.
Beyond labor, there are also losses to account for. Zaid might lose 20% of his delicate, thin-skinned heirlooms during the 200-mile trip from Norwich, New York to Manhattan.
And in the context of all of these costs, from labor to losses to nitty-gritty farm expenses and overhead, farmers like Tim and Zaid have to set a price that will be competitive in the context of the market and that will leave them with something to take home.
The way that price is calculated? An organic tomato farmer at the McCarren Park Greenmarket in Brooklyn described walking through the market first thing in the morning to peek at the non-organic prices and make sure his own was not prohibitively higher. And Tim told me that his price has increased only very gradually over the twenty years he’s been in business. When he began to consider his standard of living and the kids he was going to send to college (his daughter just started her freshman year this fall), he “started to think, if I’m going to work like that”—all day, every day, morning to night, late May to late September—”I should make something.”
“For a couple of weeks a year,” when the harvest is good and customers are paying whatever price he sets, “you feel like a fat cat and you’re overcharging,” Tim said. “But those weeks, you’re trying to get ahead, to anticipate for heavy rains next year, or for late blight.”
Photo Credit: James Ransom
As the season—or even the day—goes on, small farmers have the prerogative to adjust their prices accordingly—to sell at a rate that, as Zaid put it, will move the produce but not make a profit. In New York this month, extremely hot temperatures caused a huge number of tomatoes to ripen all at once, which means farmers have more on their hands they can confidently sell. The heirlooms selling for $3 a pound (and advertised as “best price in town”) at the market on a recent 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.”