‘Bad year, good fruit’: Dry season produces sweeter tomatoes in the Triangle

By Benjamin Rappaport

Just before the sun goes down on a warm October night, Ray Christopher is out in the fields harvesting the last of his tomato plants. It’s time to take out all the late summer plants to make room in his six-acre field for the fall vegetables. He takes a three-pronged hand fork and begins digging up the roots.

“It’s been a rough year for everyone except the fruits,” Christopher said.

Christopher has been growing his own organic fruits and vegetables since he was 12 years old. For the past 33 years, he has sold his produce every week at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

Now 67, Christopher has plenty of experience growing produce. He knows what makes some seasons yield more fruits, what time of day is best to water the plants and when his crops will taste the best.

This year, one crop has tasted especially good.

“The flavors in the tomatoes all convalesced into perfection this year,” Christopher said.

A Complicated Gift

That’s because this year was a particularly dry season, and tomatoes taste better when they have less water in them, according to a 2013 study from the science journal PLOS One. The less moisture in the plant, the more the flavors can naturally condense into the fruit. Those natural flavors of the fruit make the tomato extra sweet.

This phenomenon is unique to tomato plants because, while most crops will change flavor depending on moisture level, fruits and vegetables typically become more bitter during dry and hot seasons. Instead, the unique flavor profile of the juices inside the tomato plant makes it sweeter.

One of the authors of the 2013 study is Raquel Miranda, a plant biologist at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Fortaleza, Brazil. She said to imagine the tomato breathing to understand why it tastes sweeter.

“When we breathe, we produce what are called free radicals. Those react and deteriorate our cells very slowly over time. Essentially, we are aging,” Miranda said.

However, plants can age indefinitely because the free radicals they produce don’t deteriorate the plant. So, when they “breathe” and produce those free radicals, they are producing internal antioxidants. Miranda said antioxidant production is increased when the plant is under stress, and those antioxidants are associated with the quality of the fruit.

Climate change is proven to increase stressors on all plant species by creating longer, more frequent dry seasons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Miranda said the main effect of global warming is that it will increase photosynthesis in plants, and the effects of that increase on a plant species can vary depending on the geographic region.

“It’s really a long stretch to say climate change will improve the quality of fruit across the board,” Miranda said. “Photosynthesis isn’t the whole story when it comes to plants, especially produce.”

Nature’s Secret Sauce

For now, the sweeter tomatoes can be a temporary delight. This sweetness is especially prevalent in organically grown tomatoes, like Christopher’s.

“I just know now when it’s dry out there, those pasta sauces, those salsas, those soups are going to be extra good,” Christopher said.

Christopher’s customers notice the changes too. He said dry seasons often result in more tomato sales because the word gets around. While the customers often don’t know the science behind what’s exciting their taste buds, to them it doesn’t matter.

“Every week at the market I’ve heard, ‘Wow. I didn’t know they could taste like this. What’d you do to it?’” Christopher said.

His special secret? Mother Nature.

Christopher said he doesn’t change his tactics from year to year; he just lets the plants do their thing, and he harvests them when they’re ready to sell at the market.

An Imperfect Balance

The advent of modern farming techniques has made organic farms like Christopher’s much rarer. Organic farms don’t produce nearly as high crop yields as conventional farming methods. Those methods, however, rely heavily on the use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, which can decrease the health benefits of the fruit.

For example, tomatoes grown organically can be 40% smaller than modern methods. However, they also have 55% more vitamin C, 57% more natural sugars and 139% more natural antioxidants, according to the 2013 study.

Harry Klee is a horticulture researcher at the University of Florida focused on producing better tasting tomatoes (yes, this is really his main emphasis). He said the fight between organic and modern methods is an imperfect balancing act.

“You look at the data, and it says organic tomatoes are better for you and the planet,” Klee said. “That’s all fine and dandy until you realize how much more land it takes and there are millions of people out there still starving every day.”

Klee said the solution is not choosing one method or another but instead working at the intersection of business and technology to produce tomatoes that taste better and are accessible to everyone. Some people prefer going to the market every week, getting their produce from people like Christopher and knowing their farmers. Most, however, don’t have the time, money or access to organic markets so they go to the closest grocery store.

The best solution to increasing accessibility of tomatoes — and all produce — is to teach people how to grow it themselves, Klee said. That’s why his lab in Gainesville, Florida, started shipping free tomato seeds to anyone across the country who requests them.

To him, these issues of taste, yield and access of tomatoes are interconnected. Growers aren’t incentivized to use safer methods because yields determine wages, he said.

While there is no perfect solution to farming more equitably or solving climate change for growers, Klee and Christopher take solace in the joy of a sweeter tomato season.

Christopher places what is likely the last group of this season’s tomatoes into cardboard boxes and then into the bed of his white Ford F-150. They’re ready to sell at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning.

“Somewhere tucked in there is a metaphor for us,” he said as he closed the tailgate. “Bad year, good fruit. I don’t know; it feels like a reminder there is always a silver lining.”

Edited by Caroline Bowers