Tomatoes: Picked now to savor later
September/October 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Paolo Vescia
The Barcellos family grows processing tomatoes for year-round use.
Arnold Barcellos and his family grow processing tomatoes not far from the Los Banos farm where his father raised dairy cows in the 1930s.
Mastering grandma's homemade pasta sauce or the cooking club's gazpacho is a whole lot easier thanks to savory canned tomato products. Processing tomatoes—whether diced, crushed, pureed, stewed or as ketchup—are packed with nutrients and antioxidants, so you can feel good about serving them to family and friends.
Similar in size and appearance to Roma tomatoes, processing tomato varieties are ideal for canning because their greater solid content (less juice) and thicker skins enable them to sustain mechanical harvesting and transportation to canneries.
Brothers Aaron and Aric Barcellos harvest processing tomatoes from June through early October.
California is the primary source of processed tomato products in the United States, producing about 95 percent of what is grown and processed across 260,000 acres in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. Processors also find customers abroad, selling tomato products to buyers in Canada, Mexico, Japan and other nations.
Arnold Barcellos and sons Aric and Aaron have grown processing tomatoes in their hometown of Los Banos since 1998, though their family is now in its fifth generation of farming.
"Farming is a great challenge. Every day is different," said Arnold, who began as a dairy farmer. "We're a team. We're all equal partners, and the next generation is the future."
The Barcelloses compare tending the family's 2,000 acres of tomatoes to caring for a home garden.
"We basically have a big garden out here and we are doing everything we can to manage it and harvest quality tomatoes at the peak of ripeness," said Aaron, who manages the business side of their company, A-Bar Ag Enterprises. "Home gardeners know that growing a tomato plant is like caring for a person; it likes to be comfortable, it doesn't want to be too hot or too cold, and it doesn't want to get stressed. We try to keep our plants happy."
Processing tomato growers in the Los Banos area begin planting seedlings in April to get a jump on the season, which lasts until early October. A tomato plant yields red-ripe fruit after about four months.
Aric Barcellos stands on a tomato harvester to inspect the crop before it is transferred to trucks.
Aric's favorite time of year is harvest, when he walks almost knee-deep along rows of mature tomato plants.
"You nurture the plants and by the end of the season, you know you did well," said Aric, who manages the farming. "We are giving consumers the highest quality of fruit. If it is not, we're not going to ship it."
A self-proclaimed outdoorsman who enjoys working on farm machinery, Aric acknowledges he is motivated by the daily challenges of running the farm and overseeing nearly 100 employees. Like many farmers, he remains concerned about water availability, complying with complicated regulations and being able to hire enough people to harvest his crops.
"My job is to keep the wheels turning," Aric said. "I need to make sure things get done."
That job picks up speed once the fields change from green to red and tomatoes are harvested. As the tomato harvester moves across the field, just-picked tomatoes are separated from dirt and vines. An optic sensor rejects any green tomatoes. A few employees stand on the harvester to remove leftover stems or green fruit and inspect the red tomatoes dropped into a truck driving alongside.
Once tomatoes arrive at the cannery, within hours they are processed into a wide variety of products, including the paste that is a base for sauces (pasta and barbecue) and ketchup. To create paste, the raw tomato is cooked, separated from its skin and stems, and boiled to a consistency of approximately 30 percent tomato solids to 70 percent water. Other canned products from California include diced, peeled and stewed tomatoes; some companies make dehydrated tomato products, such as whole dried tomatoes and tomato powder.
At canneries like the one above, tomatoes are sorted and processed into paste and other products. (Photo courtesy of Morning Star Farms)
"When I walk into a tomato-processing plant, the first thing I think of is my grandmother's kitchen," Aaron said. "I can remember as a kid having to go pick tomatoes so she could make her sauce."
Each October, the ripe smell of tomatoes also permeates the Los Banos Tomato Festival, an event celebrating everything related to the processing tomato, including its nutritional benefits. The festival (www.lbtomatofestival.com) takes place on Oct. 6 and 7 this year and will feature contests for the best salsa, pasta sauce and bloody mary.
"Consumers should feel good about incorporating tomato products into their meals. When they are serving even spaghetti sauce, that's something that is really good for them and their family," said Rodger Wasson, executive director of the Tomato Products Wellness Council (www.tomatowellness.com).
The fruit goes through a series of water baths before entering the cannery. (Photo by Christine Souza)
Numerous studies suggest that eating more tomato products may protect against cardiovascular disease, various forms of cancer, inflammation and other conditions. According to information provided by the Wellness Council, tomato products may also offer strength in guarding against sun damage and osteoporosis. Many of these benefits are thought to be due to high levels of the antioxidant lycopene.
Wasson said many studies suggest that lycopene becomes easier for the body to absorb when it is heat-treated, as it is with tomato sauces and other products.
The Barcelloses enjoy eating the tomatoes fresh from the field during a hard day's work, but also in salads and salsa.
"Our tomatoes may be in a can or a bottle, but they will be the ripest tomatoes you'll ever eat. A processing tomato contains a higher Brix (sugar content) and soluble solids—that's where the flavor comes from," Aaron said. "It is nice to be able to have a product that is so versatile; there are a billion uses for tomato products."
Three generations of the Barcellos family lend a hand at A-Bar Ag Enterprises, which grows cotton in addition to processing tomatoes and other crops. The family hopes to sustain the business so members of the youngest generation can have a role if they choose.
The Barcellos family also grows fresh tomatoes, asparagus, alfalfa, pomegranates, onions, cantaloupes, wheat and cotton. Each of Arnold's grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from the Azores islands. His father, August Barcellos, began dairy farming in the early 1930s, a mile from where the family farm is today. And while Arnold started his farming career on the dairy, he later switched to growing processing tomatoes.
"Even with the day-to-day challenges that we face, our family enjoys growing processing tomatoes and creating a product that consumers love," Arnold said.
Get your red on
Any way you dice them, tomatoes are nutritional powerhouses. As shown by numerous scientific studies, tomato products remain economical and versatile kitchen staples that provide the following health benefits:
- High levels of lycopene, an antioxidant shown to protect against various cancers, including colorectal, prostate, pancreatic, breast, lung and endometrial.
- Essential vitamins such as C, A and K, minerals and fiber, while being low in fat and calories.
- Inflammation-fighting properties that may improve health and reduce risk for chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer's.
Recipes: Inspired in Italy, made in California