Hillsdale, MI. When I first thought about writing this it was the “Ten Dollar Tomato.” But historians are more or less required to tell the truth, and it now costs amateur (literally, “lover”) gardeners about five times as much to grow a good old beefsteaker as it did in the early 80s.
The great Guy Clark, one of West Texas’s gifts to FPR culture (along with Elmer Kelton and J. Evetts Haley), wrote a song:
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes,
Only two things that money can’t buy,
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.
I asked my freshman class a few weeks ago who can send a text message? All of them, of course. Who can grow a tomato? One bold young woman said she can, but recanted after my second question. All but two (out of twenty-three) admitted that they would not know home grown from store grown. My own daughters, less than a generation removed from the farm, freaked out when they figured out that the cow tongue sandwiches (which they loved) their mother had been making them for years were made out of the tongues of cows!
You can get cow tongue at WalMart, and tomatoes at Piggly Wiggly, but neither one resembles what my wife used to carry up to the house from her grandpa’s slaughter-barn or what I have grown in the back yard for about fifty years. The sad thing, though, is that about one in a million Americans has access to fresh cow tongue, and just about the same number can really understand Guy Clark’s song about tomatoes.
And there’s another sad thing. If you are a good Porcher and want to learn the difference between home grown and store grown tomatoes and maybe even grow some yourself, the first few nice meaty firm heritage beefsteakers will cost you about fifty bucks apiece. By the time you start getting the cost down most of you will have given up. As Wendell Berry can tell you, growing stuff ain’t easy.
First off, if you’re a semi-urban type, you have to get three or four dozen up-scale gardening catalogs. They’ll tell you all about the right kinds of soil, watering systems, fertilizers (organic, of course), raised beds, seeds, hoses, hoes, friendly predators, diggers, deer discouragers, fences, indoor lighting systems, seed-starters, pots, potting benches, composters, compost starters, muck boots, knee pads, gloves, broad-brimmed hats, sun screen, tomato cages, companion plants, and about a thousand other things that the well-equipped gardener can’t live without. The last time I priced out the starting investment for a new semi-urban gardener (a decade or so ago) it was about ten large.
Second, if you put a value on your labor–let’s say you’re an auto worker and make about forty bucks an hour plus benefits–the first tomato will cost you another grand or so. More, of course, if you are one of the obamarich and make, say, 250 big a year.
Third, a tomato is not a tomato is not a tomato. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Do you like heirlooms or hybrids? What predators are you willing to share with? Do you like salads or sandwiches or tomato juice? Every choice costs money, and every choice costs labor.
Fourth, if you grow tomatoes you must plan your vacations around the growing season, or else plan to get a good enough tax lawyer to write off your failed crop. Like dairy cows, tomatoes do not take time off. I guess you could justify growing tomatoes by the money you save not going on vacations.
Fifth, you can also save money by not having your nails done. Tomatoes require dirt, and growing them requires getting your hands in it. If you use natural fertilizer there is a healthy aroma that goes along with the stuff under your fingernails.
On the other hand there is a moral side to all of this. Guy Clark’s last verse is
If I’s to change the life I lead
I’d be Johnny Tomato Seed
‘Cause I know what this country needs,
Homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see.
When I die don’t bury me
In a box in a cemetery,
Out in the garden would be much better–
I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes.
I spent most of my professional life getting paid to read, write, and talk. That someone was willing to pay me to do the things that come the most naturally to me was always a mystery, but always welcome. It required, however, that dirt and tomatoes had to come into my life (just as rugby had when I was younger) because like any good Aristotelian I was always looking for the mean. Guy Clark gave sense to what I was doing. Love is a good thing, even at fifty bucks a tomato.