Unpacking local tomatoes

backyard beauties

Half a million plants grow inside Backyard Farms’ 42 acres of greenhouse. Photo credit: Stacey Cramp, New York Times

At HUDS, the policy is to buy locally whenever possible. Our purchasing department spends significant time identifying new local partners and sustaining existing relationships with local farmers. Every week, Purchasing sends a list of what local products are on the residential dining menu. Some products change with the season (apples, greens, summer squash), but not tomatoes: every week, they make the local list.

The term “local” carries myriad positive associations, which often get bundled together. This elision can produce the assumption that every local product is more seasonal, travels fewer food miles, develops the community, and supports small-scale farming. In reality, the advantages of buying local are complex; they differ depending on the product.

For us, tomatoes are a perfect case in point.


Harvard University Dining Services buys all of its tomatoes from Backyard Farms in Madison, ME (within 250 mi, HUDS’ definition of local).

These tomatoes are not small-scale agriculture. Backyard Farms grows over 500,000 tomato plants in a greenhouse that’s the largest building in Maine.

Nor are they necessarily more sustainable; because tomatoes demand so much sun and heat, growing tomatoes in Maine requires significant resources.

So why buy local tomatoes? In this case, it’s about taste.

When a tomato is grown far away, the grower needs to account for the long transport time. The tomato is picked green, then gassed with ethylene after transport for ripening. The end result is still a red tomato, but that tomato doesn’t taste as much like a tomato.

This process is still fairly new. (For more reading, in “The Coldscape,” Nicola Twilley describes the evolution of our modern food system into one that is heavily refrigerated.) In 1910, growers started noticing that bananas ripened sooner when around other ripened fruit; later, scientists discovered that ethylene, a hydrocarbon gas that plants release, triggers ripening. Refrigerated units in trucks came later. Now it’s standard practice to ship fruits that are mature but not ripe in refrigerated units until they arrive at their point of sale, where they can be gassed with ethylene.

When a tomato is ripened on the vine (as in the case of Backyard Beauties), the tomato fruit can draw sugars from the parent plant, resulting in a softer, sweeter tomato. Since Backyard Farms is close by, they ship their tomatoes in about a day and they are delivered shortly after.

The larger point is that the value in buying local varies tremendously by the product. What does local mean for tomatoes? A very different thing than what local means for squash or ice cream or potatoes, products that store well, where the quality of the product does not depend as much on the distance of the shipping.

More on greenhouse tomatoes

“Giant Greenhouses Mean Flavorful Tomatoes All Year”, NY Times

“Tastier Winter Tomatoes, Thanks to a Boom in Greenhouse Growing,” NPR

The Coldscape,” Cabinet

Greenhouse Tomatoes Change the Dynamics of the North American Fresh Tomato Industry, USDA

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