The Price Is Right

Red Cardinal Farms
Stillwater; (651) 653-8038
Mississippi Market Co-op
622 Selby Ave., St. Paul; (651) 224-5101
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. daily

 

If you've ever tried one, there's no need to explain that a summer heirloom tomato from Red Cardinal Farms tastes better than a conventional tomato trucked in from California, Mexico, or Arizona. It's like explaining that pesto tastes better than paper clips, that eagles in flight look different than leaves on the ground.

Craig Lassig

But if you haven't tried one, I'll try to re-create the experience for you in the insufficient medium of words on paper: Any Red Cardinal Farms tomato tastes like a big ripe fruit, in the way that a pomegranate tastes like fruit, in the way a persimmon tastes like fruit, in the way that fruit that hasn't been engineered into ubiquity tastes like fruit. An heirloom tomato like Prudens Purple tastes a bit plummy, a bit winey, like it's hiding some nighttime under its dusky red skin. A Valencia Orange tomato is the color of carrots at twilight and tastes bright and smooth, with a hint of apricot shot through its creamy, custardy flesh.

A German Striped is so colorful and exuberant it's very nearly unseemly--an enormous, pound-heavy beast, misshapen like a toddler-drawn circle, striated with a half-dozen oversaturated colors, like some horrible psychedelic poster. Carve it and you'll get a slice the size of a pork chop, the flesh orange and red and yellow and green, different regions tasting different, in one area dessert-sweet, in another citrusy and brisk, in another a little grassy. Meanwhile a conventional tomato, round and firm and waxy red, tastes like texture, like wet and cold, with nothing more than an echo of tomato deep inside, a ghost in the machine.

The other difference between factory tomatoes and Red Cardinal's near-artisan crop jumps out at you in the aisles of local co-ops. At Mississippi Market, heirloom varieties run a whopping $4.79 a pound, which means that a single, Brobdingnagian German Stripe can set you back five dollars. Five dollars! For a single tomato! The conventional equivalent hovers around two dollars a pound. Now, in foodie terms paying two and a half times more for something twenty times better isn't a bad deal--you'll pay twenty times more for a bottle of wine that's twenty times better than average--but a five-dollar tomato still feels like a leap.

I asked David Washburn, who owns and runs Red Cardinal Farms along with his wife Meg Anderson and their partner Everett Myers, how Red Cardinal could hope to compete in a world where an ever smaller portion of the population knows the difference between real tomatoes and dreck. "People have been paying it," Washburn sighed, "and we've actually been raising our prices over the last few years. Every year when you plant, it's an experiment--you don't really know what it costs you until the season's over, but we've been homing in on the true costs." Those true costs, Washburn went on to explain, are the real problem with tomato pricing: The two dollars you pay for red wax balls hide an actual cost that can be exponentially higher.

For example, when Red Cardinal Farms needed water for its fields, the farmers paid $25,000 to dig a well. But in southern California and Arizona, source of most of the U.S. tomato crop, the water comes from the big public-water projects that tap the Colorado River. "One of the advantages to growing food in the desert is that it makes it easier to industrialize farming," notes Washburn. "There's sun every day, there's no rain and no humidity so you don't have a lot of fungal diseases. At first pass you say, 'Hey, that's great.' But they're using all of this ancient water out of the aquifers--it took thousands of years to fill those aquifers, and they're just pumping them down."

In addition to that long-term water problem, Washburn says, a number of other costs should legitimately be factored into the price of desert-grown tomatoes: Since cheap produce depends on cheap labor, the public cost of helping low-wage workers survive--food stamps, child-welfare programs--should be added to the price of the crop. Since tomatoes packaged in poverty-stricken towns like Yuma, Arizona, take five days to get here on gas-guzzling refrigerated trucks, the global price of cheap gasoline--from the Gulf War to the vast oil-pollution problems in West Africa--should also be accounted for. "When that pollution spews into the air, we're the ones that are breathing it," Washburn argues. "You don't pay for it when you buy the produce, but you pay for it with your health."

Put differently, when you buy a tomato, you're not just buying a tomato. You're buying jobs, trucks, rivers, air. At Red Cardinal Farms, says Washburn, "We're trying to do it the right way, paying all the true costs, paying people decent wages, trying to take care of the land, paying for the infrastructure ourselves. We've got a more honest price--they've got a cheaper one." But an honest price for a superior product isn't as easy a sell as it sounds.

When I drove out to Red Cardinal's 18 acres of vegetables and flowers just east of I-694, I slowed down on what looked like a rural road, looking for the farm's sign. Within seconds a red minivan was hot on my tail, flashing lights and honking with manic urgency. Everett Myers, one of Red Cardinal's farmer-owners, says that's a common sight: Residents of the area's new subdivisions "want to see the farm fields, they want to think they live in the country, but they don't want to deal with any of the realities of farm life. A tractor going down a road gives them fits." Those neighbors don't complain, though, about the healthy wildlife population the farm supports--the chain of healthy soil microbes that provide for thriving insect and plant communities, which in turn sustain scads of frogs, snakes, mice, and bunnies, which nourish a vast population of finches, swallows, hawks, foxes, barn owls, and great horned owls.

Even those who ought to know better don't necessarily. I saw this year's first crop of Red Cardinal's tangerine-colored Sun Gold cherry tomatoes--exquisite little mouthfuls of lively, acidic zip--at the Wedge Co-op in Uptown. As I reached for one of the $3.29 pints, an employee pointed out a different variety of organic cherry tomatoes, grown in California, that were priced at 30 cents less. "I prefer to buy local," I sputtered, and proceeded to work myself into a fine froth. California cherry tomatoes are picked before fully ripening on the vine; California cherry tomatoes aren't that-day fresh; California cherry tomatoes aren't supporting Minnesota farmers, Minnesota barn owls, and little Minnesota microbes in the Minnesota dirt.

In fact, says Barb Tholin, produce manager at the Selby-Dale Mississippi Market, those lower prices on trucked-in tomatoes are no coincidence: "California [organic] produce is becoming more and more of a commodity," she explains. "These big farms can afford to play the market. They know full well that there's local product on the market in the summer, so they drop prices below cost for a month or two to keep local farmers out of the game. Then they raise their prices in the winter when they know there's no competition." So not only does buying California organic produce do nothing for our farmers and barn owls--it may actually help drive them out of business.

Yet I don't know if any of this would matter much if those Red Cardinal tomatoes weren't so delicious. Lucia Watson, the celebrated chef and owner of Lucia's in Uptown, says the farm's crop is one of her chief summer delights: "For one thing, you get them within hours of their being in the sunshine. That makes them amazing. They're juicy, they have flavor, they're sweet, and aesthetically, they're just gorgeous. The flavor is so pure, it surprises you.

"My policy is that your food is only as good as your primary ingredients--so if we spend more on fabulous tomatoes, then we don't need to spend more on things to embellish them. It's just like at home: If you spend intelligently you can serve a really high-quality product and still keep your overall food costs where you want them." Which is to say that with a shudderingly good tomato, you don't need to throw around a lot of truffles or Roquefort.

The night of my tomato-dazzled visit to Mississippi Market, I set out a dinner banquet of five-dollar tomatoes (well, to be truthful, only the outrageous German Striped was that expensive). I put them on a cutting board with a good loaf of bread, and the ensemble looked like a Dutch still life or one of those irritating spreads in a foodie magazine; usually it takes me hours to achieve anything so picturesque. A friend and I dined on nothing but tomatoes and bread with a bit of olive oil, the smallest drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and occasional forays into salt and pepper. Unlikely though it sounds, fruity and food-critic-ish though it be, it was honestly better than a dozen chef-cooked dinners I've had out this summer--and quite a bit cheaper.

Red Cardinal Farms tomatoes are also available at Mississippi Market's original location, 1810 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, (651) 690-0507, and the Wedge Co-op, 2105 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, (612) 871-3993. For information on joining the Red Cardinal community-supported agriculture project, visit the farm's Web site: www.redcardinalfarm.com.

 

TABLEHOPPING:

JESSICA RABBIT? FAWN Hall? Or...? Was it Gore Vidal who said, "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television?" Well, apparently, neither do I. Or at least, I never miss a chance to appear on television. That last bit is more than you need to know. How could you bring that up in public? Pervert. Where was I? Oh yeah, so anyway, you can see me now, every Wednesday morning in the last half-hour of Good Day, Minnesota, the new morning news show on KMSP (Channel 9) which, starting this week, will run Monday through Friday from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. Will this finally answer the question as to what I really look like? I hope not, since I'm appearing in a full, exorbitant disguise--do I look like Jessica Rabbit? Wynonna Judd? A sock puppet? You be the judge. Whatever you decide, it definitely was David Frost who said: "Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home." Ready or not, here I come.

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