by Jack Ritter
What follows is part of an extensive look at what the major chain stores and the produce industry as a whole is doing to our fresh produce, especially the tomato. My immediate family and I have been growing Grainger County tomatoes for 41 years. My grandfather grew tomatoes from the early to the late 1930's. Our family has a rich history in growing the kind of tomatoes that have made the Grainger County tomato famous. In the early years, our family did all the work: we worked in the field, we picked the tomatoes, we packed the tomatoes, and we delivered the tomatoes to “mom and pop” stores, which were mostly family operations just like our farm operation. At the end of the day, when our tomatoes had all been delivered, we had the money for our tomatoes in our hands and could pay all our expenses. All that changed when chain stores took over the market, putting our “mom and pop” stores out of business. With no “mom and pop” stores to sell to, Grainger County farmers had to court the big chain stores in order to have a market for their tomatoes. That's when everything changed for the Grainger County farmer, for the great-tasting Grainger County tomato, and for the consumer who was gradually programmed into thinking that she wanted a tomato that was “picture-perfect,” hard as a brick, and tasted like cardboard.
The Grainger County Tomato
Grainger County tomatoes are tomatoes that are grown in the county of Grainger in the eastern part of the state of Tennessee. Grainger county is a rural county whose primary industry is agriculture. We are a small agricultural community with a population of approximately 22,800. There are four small towns: Rutledge, the county seat, Bean Station, Blaine, and Washburn.
Grainger County tomatoes are known by almost every person within a 250 mile radius and by a great majority of people throughout the United States. They are known somewhat world-wide, for they have been sold to some markets in Canada, Mexico, England, and I'm sure other countries I'm not aware of.
Over the years, Grainger County tomatoes have been a tomato that was desired above most other tomatoes because of their rich garden flavor and their homegrown appearance and texture. There are different reasons why these tomatoes have had these unique qualities. One reason is the agricultural practices used by the majority of the farmers in Grainger County. Each operation is a vine ripe operation. That simply means that our tomatoes are picked in a ripe stage and are ready to sell or eat. The last statistics I am aware of indicates that better than 80 percent of the tomatoes consumed in this country are gas-green tomatoes. That means that they are picked green, run through washing and grading machines that would bruise a ripe tomato, put in coolers and exposed to ethylene gas which makes them ripen. Then they are sent to re-packers where they are handled again, place packed in boxes and stickered with a PLU code. By this time, a week to 10 days has passed before they are shipped to distribution centers and then to chain stores, which makes them close to two weeks old before the consumer can buy them. The Grainger County tomato is unique in its time from harvest to consumer. One of the things our farmers have been able to boast about is the fact that our product is picked one day and delivered to the grocery store shelf the next day. Gas-green tomatoes have to be from 10 days to 2 weeks old by the time the consumer can purchase them. This is not only true with tomatoes, but with other produce items as well. Grainger County produce is direct from our farms to you.
Except for the family farms in Grainger County and in small agricultural counties in other areas of the United States, the majority of our produce on the grocery store shelves go through this process: produce is grown by corporate farms with thousands of acres and many farmers who funnel their produce through a central location called a packing house, processing plant, or receiver facility. This produce is washed in water baths or sprinkler systems that contain a certain amount of chlorine or some other disinfectant. Thousands of tons daily go through this same water. The first product has a good chance to be clean because the bath water starts out clean and the equipment starts out clean. But processing produce continuously all day long at a rate of thousands of tons in order to meet food demands leads to much of the produce being processed through dirty water on dirty equipment.
People, as a majority, seem to feel good about this system except the family farmer and the ones who see this new system for what it is. It is nothing more than an attempt to control our food supply by the federal government. If the government can tell you what you can eat and how it is grown, harvested, prepared, and sold, then the government has total control of our food supply, and we, as subjects of this country, are at their mercy.
Another reason that the Grainger County tomato is unique in its superior taste is the soil in this county. It is the acid of the tomato that gives it a good taste. The taste that keeps one coming back for more is from the acidic content of the tomato, not the sugar content. High sugar content gives the tomato a bland taste. The decomposition of the limestone rock in this county adds acidity to the soil and gives it a pH that is very favorable for growing tomatoes.
A third reason that the Grainger County tomato has been a unique, much desired tomato is that Grainger County farmers have, until recent years, uniformly grown garden type varieties rather than shipping varieties. For approximately 100 years, Grainger County has been noted for production of a tomato that has the same taste as the tomato you picked in your grandmother's garden. But when Grainger County farmers had to look to chain stores to market their tomatoes, all that changed. Major chain stores and produce outlets started demanding that produce, especially tomatoes, be picture-perfect and hard as a brick so it would keep on store shelves 15 to 30 days without decaying. This change in the quality specifications and shelf life for the tomato has affected the choice of varieties that Grainger County farmers grow. In order to meet rigorous inspections at distribution centers, farmers have had to give up growing some of the typical garden type varieties because they wouldn't pass an inspection.
As they looked to seed companies for tomatoes with the qualities demanded by chain stores, Grainger County farmers found that there were plenty to choose from, and Grainger County farmers experimented with many varieties. They found varieties that had been engineered to ripen uniformly, be free of growth cracks, be perfectly uniform in shape and size, but in all the varieties, the one thing lacking was a good taste. The only way the farmers could survive and continue selling tomatoes to the chain stores was to sacrifice taste in order to meet the requirements of the inspectors. The only thing they could do was to choose the lesser of the evils of the genetically engineered tomato and grow the one with the least mealy, cardboard taste.
In the meantime, consumers are being trained to choose produce by its appearance and not its taste. For years now, shoppers have purchased tomatoes and other produce for looks rather than taste. People have forgotten what a tomato is really supposed to taste like, and young people have never tasted a true “tomato taste.”
Because of our history of growing a tomato with an exceptional taste and being proud to put our name on a unique product that keeps people coming back for more, we have become concerned about what is happening in the produce industry. Seed companies and other companies like Monsanto are genetically engineering our seeds to increase production, appearance, and shelf life at the expense of taste and health in most of our produce items. These companies are a fear factor within themselves because they are developing seeds and varieties of plants that are resistant to different kinds of harsh chemicals, such as insecticides and herbicides that, if an insect such as a honey bee were to pollinate that particular crop and carry the pollen back to its home, it would destroy the entire hive. People wonder what is happening to honey bees world-wide. I can show them at Ritter Farms because we have our own honey bees and we have seen this take place ever since seed companies and Monsanto have developed this monster that has to be affecting the general population by causing different forms of diseases, especially cancers and serving as population control by causing sterility in humans. Anytime you can grow a crop and spray it with a herbicide that is labeled with skull and crossbones and it kill everything in the field except that particular crop, then the crop takes it in systemically, where does the product end up? People eat it and suffer the consequences. We believe that this is only the beginning.
We at Ritter Farms are concerned for our customers, our family, and our employees. We always grow our crops with a minimum of chemicals. We use buffer zones between crops. In a lot of crops, we can almost be considered an organic grower except that we use commercial fertilizers instead of manure. We feel that this is the safer means of fertilizing our crops.
At Ritter Farms, we try to educate our consumers and especially young people who come to the farm in groups from their schools by letting them know what a garden variety tomato looks like and tastes like. We even go into our stores and show their customers how to choose the best tasting tomato by looks and feel. This is part of the burden we feel as a family concerned for the health and safety of our fellow Americans.
In stores that carry our tomatoes, once educated and enabled to recognize our tomato for its looks and taste, we have seen sales increase from 10 to 50 percent. We have seen this happen in the chain stores that we sell to. At first ,they wanted the Grainger County tomato for its name. Stores in this area had to have the Grainger County tomato because that's what people in this area wanted to buy. Our first sales were to individual stores, then we were asked to deliver the tomatoes to a central distribution center. That's when the problems started. The inspectors didn't like the looks of the tomato. They wanted us to grow a tomato that conformed to their specs. We explained that they were destroying the purpose of having a Grainger County tomato. In order to sell them a hard tomato that was perfectly shaped, and had a long shelf life and no blemishes, they would have to sacrifice the very thing that the Grainger County tomato was all about – good taste.
Ritter Farms has elected not to grow this genetically modified tomato that tastes like cardboard. We have concentrated on going back to the old varieties we used to grow by using heirloom seeds. We feel strongly about giving our customers a good tasting tomato. Thus, we educate our customers, letting them know what to expect from a homegrown tomato. It will be misshapen, it will have moderate growth cracks, cat faces, and scaring. These are consumer identifiable traits of a homegrown tomato. This tomato is not picture-perfect – it has a slight give to it, it normally has a large woody calyx end, it has a tomato smell and a rich tomato taste that is very juicy and not mealy. We also feel that if these major chain stores must have the picture-perfect, hard-as-a-rock, cardboard-tasting tomato, then someone else will have to sell them this type of tomato because we have a dedication to the general public and to our customers to preserve the reputation of the Grainger County tomato and give them the best tasting tomato on the market.
As we must educate our customers – the chain stores, and other retail markets we service must also educate the consumer who buys the product to take home and eat. Tomatoes with a “just picked out of the garden” taste are not perfect. They are not hard as a brick, but they taste like a tomato rather than a piece of cardboard.
Chain stores, produce markets, and consumers all over this country are free to choose the kind of tomato they want to eat, but as for me and my family, we choose to grow the type of tomato that has a tomato taste, and we choose to grow it in a way that is safe for all those who choose to buy it and eat it.