Low-Hanging Fruit 

The Tomato Independence Project explores the local food system through the tiny tomato

Janie Burns, with the Treasure Valley Food Coalition, says tomatoes are on the front lines in the fight for local food.

Patrick Sweeney

Janie Burns, with the Treasure Valley Food Coalition, says tomatoes are on the front lines in the fight for local food.

A line wound around the North End Organic Nursery's parking lot Aug. 13, as Salsa Festival-goers moved from table to table, maneuvering tortilla chips heaped high with hunks of yellow tomato and pungent purple onion into their open mouths. The salsas--some chunky and pico-esque, others smooth and searing--had to be crafted from at least 50 percent local tomatoes to be eligible for the competition.

"We love cilantro, so we use a lot of fresh cilantro in there," said Stephanie Bennett of Steph's Seriously Good Salsa. "It's a refrigerated salsa so it's fresh; we use fresh lime juice not from concentrate, we make our own sea salt seasoning mix for our salsa, we use serrano peppers, but for our hot we add fresh habanero peppers."

Bennett took home the top prize in the professional category, which included entries from Fork, Parilla, Crooked Fence, Highlands Hollow and Amigo's Mexican Restaurant.

NEON's Salsa Festival was the second in a series of Tomato Tuesday events taking place throughout August and September. Upcoming events include a tomato seed-saving class Sept. 3 at NEON, the Tomato Tales storytelling event Sept. 17 at Edwards Greenhouse and a lecture by Tomatoland author Barry Estabrook Oct. 1 at Boise State University. Spearheaded by the Treasure Valley Food Coalition, these events celebrate the seasonal peak of the Tomato Independence Project--a bold campaign to "end the tyranny of the tasteless tomato."

"The tomatoes that come here are awful; they're dreadful; they're tedious; they're bad," said TVFC's Janie Burns of the mealy, unripe tomatoes trucked into the area off season. "We just point out how awful the tomatoes are in January and everybody nods their head. And we point out the luxurious feeling of eating a summer-ripe tomato right out of the garden and everybody nods their head on that. So we really chose the tomato as a vehicle to tell a larger story."

The TVFC is a small, nonprofit that collaborates with other groups to increase how much local food is consumed in the area. The goal: 20 percent of the Treasure Valley's food consumption be local by 2020.

"We attempt to take a big-picture look at the system, which is pretty huge and all-encompassing," said Burns. "So we could easily spend a lifetime working on seeds or processing or gardening ... but we're looking for more systemic change."

To that end, the TVFC is focused on one small, juicy element of the local food system: the tomato, which Burns has dubbed the "low-hanging fruit" or "gateway crop."

"I think it gives us the opportunity in small doses to feed people information about the larger food system," said Burns. "For example, we know that every day of the year, about the equivalent of three trucks of tomatoes come into this valley ... about 15,000 pounds. So through this one food, we can talk about transportation and the energy that it takes to bring food from California. ... Eventually it's going to catch up to us, so we have to start the conversation of growing our own food, starting with tomatoes."

In order to start that discussion, the TVFC partnered with a number of local nurseries to host events related to growing local tomatoes.

"Beyond farms and farmers, nurseries are where a lot of people buy their tomato plants, and it's also where people come for tomato growing advice," said TVFC's Amy Hutchinson. "We sat around the table here at North End Organic and brainstormed some ideas about how we could celebrate tomatoes and also use tomatoes to get people to think about what other foods they might get to grow themselves."

At the start of the year, the TVFC helped organize seed-starting classes at local nurseries, where they handed out "TIP packets" containing seeds selected specifically for beginner gardeners. The packets included the Mortgage Lifter, a large, pink-ish slicer; the Early Girl, a firm-textured tom with blemish-resistant skin; the Sun Gold, a sweet, high-yielding golden cherry tomato; and the Tumbling Tom Red, a patio plant that produces bite-sized fruit.

"Across the country, vegetable seed sales are up, and I think tomatoes are part and parcel of that because it is half the reason people will dabble in vegetable gardening--because they want tomatoes, " said Hutchinson. "Most people don't go out and say, 'Beets or bust.'"

The project has also joined with local businesses to tend potted tomato plants outside their offices. At the Boise Co-op, for example, dozens of plants ring the store's bright green gazebo, tempting shoppers to pluck ripe orange-ish orbs from their twisting vines.

But both Burns and Hutchinson agree that merely urging people not to eat mealy, imported tomatoes out of season won't solve the larger issues plaguing the local food system.

"Down the road ... we'll also be talking about where you can buy fresh tomatoes from local growers if you're not growing your own and also where you can go out to eat and expect to be served locally grown tomatoes during that season," said Burns, adding that Phase Two will kick into gear in the next year or two and will include processed tomatoes.

As the Tomato Independence Project goes forward, the campaign wants to encourage the development of tomato processing skills, on both the individual level--through classes and workshops--and the industrial level, by helping to build local tomato processing facilities.

"That's a very long-term project, but that's really where the local-food movement gets a lot of muscle is when that processing piece opens up local tomatoes or local meat ... to a wide variety of people," said Burns.

For now, as local tomatoes are starting to blush red, the TVFC's message is simple.

"This is step one, empowering people to grow their own and encouraging them to plant one more or plant something else," said Burns. "You can hit people over the head, or you can say, 'You can do this one thing and you're making a difference.'"

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