June 15, 2008

Business Booming for Local Tomato Growers


Growers: Demand for young plants soars

The sound of marimbas floated through the air as early morning shoppers greeted friends, sipped coffee and browsed through mounds of fresh greens, radishes, spring onions, garlic, blood-red cherries and crisp green peas of all varieties. The Santa Fe Farmers Market was in full swing in the PERA parking lot on Paseo de Peralta on Saturday morning.

Despite almost a month of bulletins from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about the suspected link between certain types of raw tomatoes and the salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of Americans, none of the four vendors who sell only tomatoes lacked for customers.

Most were not aware that Saturday New Mexico was officially added to the FDA list of areas not associated with the outbreak.

But things had not looked so rosy for at least one vendor Friday morning. Consumer confusion and the potential loss of some commercial accounts had put a hold on their orders until the FDA officially cleared New Mexico-grown tomatoes. That motivated Kim and Steve Martin of Alcalde-based Growing Opportunities to get in touch with a number of state and federal agencies handling the salmonella investigation.

The staff of U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman was helpful in getting New Mexico-grown tomatoes onto the list, Kim Martin said, as was the traceback team at the FDA's Washington, D.C., office, and the New Mexico

secretary of agriculture. Once the FDA was assured, in writing, by state authorities that no New Mexico-grown tomatoes were ever shipped out of the state, Kim Martin said, the federal agency moved quickly to declare the local produce safe and include it in a Web site update Saturday.

Even the loss of a large delivery or two could have impacted their business by thousands of dollars, Kim Martin said, and threatened their livelihood.

"Our state government was so responsive and understanding of our concerns once they knew (the warnings were having) an effect on local growers," Kim Martin said. "We applaud them," she added, smiling as she weighed a bag of her hydroponically grown tomatoes for the next customer.

Other vendors were less affected by the crisis.

Ross Bird, who owns Ross' Tomatoes in Estancia, has been selling his hothouse-grown, pesticide-free beefsteak tomatoes at market for several months. He hasn't noticed any change in his sales, he said, since the New Mexico Department of Health and the FDA began issuing salmonella warnings associated with large, red, raw, round and Roma tomatoes in late May. "I've been selling out since spring," Bird said, noting he still had no tomatoes left at the end of the day.

Robert Ensor, who had a printout of the FDA salmonella warning posted in a corner of his booth, concurred with Bird. He thought the number of hydroponically grown Taos tomatoes he was selling was about the same as it had been before the outbreak. "It's consistent," Ensor said. "But people do want to be reassured."

Paul Cross, the farmer/owner of Charybda Farms in Arroyo Hondo, sells 12 kinds of large, round, red dirt-grown organic tomatoes he started in a greenhouse Jan. 29. He also sells tomato plants through Santa Fe Greenhouses, Wild Oats, Whole Foods, La Montanita and Vitamin Cottage.

Unlike Bird and Ensor, Cross had noticed a drop in sales of his fresh tomatoes in the past few weeks -- "people are scared," he said -- but he's also seen an increased demand for his tomato plants, perhaps the result of home gardeners deciding the only tomatoes they could trust were those they'd grown themselves.

Charlene Cerny of Santa Fe purchased a yellow pear tomato plant because she likes that particular variety, she said, not because she was worried about salmonella. But when asked if she felt safer buying locally grown tomatoes at the farmers market, she looked surprised. She hadn't realized the rich red orbs surrounding her were on the FDA's list of approved tomato purchases, she said. "I didn't get that message," she said. "I thought that 'locally grown' meant grown in the backyard."

Contact New Mexican food editor Patricia West-Barker at 986-3085 or [email protected]

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