When I think of my grandfather, I get a clear mental image of him standing in the backyard taking a bite of a ripe tomato that was freshly picked from his garden. He loved growing tomatoes, zucchini, and radishes – which he frequently ate raw after using the leg of his pants to wipe away the dirt. I think the small plot of vegetables reminded him of his family’s Minnesota farm. He even had a rustic, miniature windmill in the corner of his yard, which was a smaller version of the giant windmill on the family farm.
When I had the opportunity to visit the family’s Minnesota farm for myself, I learned that hard work was synonymous with being a farmer. The days begin early so that you can feed the animals and get into the field before the heat of the day makes it unbearable. Machinery only does so much. Lifting bales of hay, moving stubborn livestock, and shoveling manure requires strong, calloused hands. We would go to bed early in the old farmhouse, which still had gas lanterns in many of the rooms. The sound of thousands of crickets chirping in the field made it surprisingly difficult to sleep.
Today, I live in a suburban neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and two-story homes. Farms are something we visit at Halloween to go on a pony ride and to select a pumpkin. That Minnesota farmhouse is a fading memory, which is why I was eager to visit a working farm in California when offered the opportunity.
Appropriately, my day began at sunrise in a tomato field. A crop duster soared overhead on its way to a neighboring farm. It was already 70 degrees as I watched a harvesting machine, about the size of a school bus, make its way along the cultivated rows of red and green. The plants were efficiently scooped up and sorted. Rocks, dirt and stems billowed out the back while the produce rolled through a series of conveyors until it climbed a belt and landed in the back of a truck. The entire process took just a few seconds. When the trailers were filled to the brim, the truck would drive off and another would quickly take its place. It was an efficient and well-choreographed tomato ballet.
As I talked with the farmer about his crop, some familiar themes emerged that reminded me of the considerations my own family had to make when deciding what type of crops to plant. The market price for tomatoes was only $0.35 per pound, which meant that hundreds of acres of product were needed just to eke out a livable wage.
Farmers have a lot in common with the high rollers in Vegas. You are literally betting the farm each season as you hope that your crop yields enough produce and that market prices will align for enough profit to carry you through to another year. Bad weather and pestilence can decimate your crop and your savings. If you harvest too soon, the buyers could reject your product. Harvest too late and you could lose a portion of your field to spoilage.
We climbed into our car and followed one of the truckloads of tomatoes along its journey to the processing plant. After passing through miles upon miles of farm land, we arrived at a gleaming tower of pipes and steam. The smell of ketchup filled the air. This, I soon learned, was where tomatoes turned into tomato paste.
As we climbed the stairs and catwalks, I learned that this was one of the largest tomato paste plants in the United States. A display case showed several types of ketchup, tomato sauce, and soup that were made from the the tomato paste created at this plant. The building was loud, hot, and humming with activity. This was the busy season when all of the tomato paste for the year would be processed.
Several flights of stairs later, we reached the top and had an expansive view of the pipe city below. This is where the trucks would offload. The trailers were flooded with water and then a hatch would open at the back, sending the tomatoes cascading into a trough where they flowed into the plant.
We walked past large sorting machines that removed rocks, stems and any other debris. The tomatoes then flowed along into the myriad of pipes and steaming machinery that would cook the product, remove seeds and the tomato peels, and refine it into tomato paste that would be used in kitchens everywhere. The finished product was stored in large crates that left the assembly line at a dizzying pace.
In an adjacent office space, I saw the quality control lab where samples were tested throughout the day. Depending on how the tomato paste would be used, the plant would adjust the thickness of the product to meet the customer’s requirements. Thicker paste would be used for some ketchup brands. Thinner paste would be used for soups.
After months of growing in the field it only took a few hours for the tomatoes to be picked, transported, and then turned into paste. The most fascinating part was hearing the passion each person had for their role in the process. The farmer was proud of his crop. The factory workers gladly showed me each step of the process and how the product changed as it went through the various pipes. The workers in the lab carefully studied the samples to ensure only the best product was being shipped to kitchens across the country.
With most of the population now living in cities, there is often a disconnect when it comes to understanding how food is grown. We are accustomed to seeing our favorite fruits and vegetables in the store year-round without consideration of where it was grown or how far it has traveled. The agriculture industry is simply amazing and rides on the shoulders of those hard working farmers toiling away in the field.
Thank you to the nice people at Morning Star, Monsanto, and Seminis who made the tour possible.