If you happen to live in Treasure Valley – a bucolic, rather remote region of the United States that encompasses Southwestern Idaho and Eastern Oregon – the month of May is the time to plant your tomatoes. Old-timers say you should wait until the snow has finally melted off Shafer Butte. But you can usually count on setting your tomato transplants out sometime in May during a normal year.

With the region’s low humidity and long, cloudless summer days, the climate is ideal for heat-loving tomato plants. By August and September, you could be enjoying some rather fine tomato harvests that taste like late-summer is supposed to taste. And that’s exactly what the Tomato Independence Project is working to make happen.

Tomato Independence ProjectCelebrating its fourth year, the Tomato Independence Project is more than just a grassroots effort to salute the mighty tomato in Treasure Valley; it is also a delicious and fun way to increase the region’s awareness about the importance of local food.  Students, farmers, nurseries, chefs, educators and gardeners get actively involved in the program, which includes everything from tomato growing classes and tomato lectures to tomato tastings.

That’s why I wanted to speak with Janie Burns, Chair of the Treasure Valley Food Coalition, which started the Tomato Independence Project in 2013.  This small non-profit has been actively collaborating for years with Treasure Valley businesses, educators, cooks, non-profit organizations and government entities around food systems issues.

Burns knows plenty about local foods. She started selling organic vegetables at Boise’s first downtown farmers’ market in 1989, and she’s now a charter vendor of the new Boise Farmers Market, selling grass-fed lamb and pastured poultry raised on her 16-acre Meadowlark Farm near Nampa.

Before working at UC Food Observer, I lived in Boise for six years and bought geese and lamb from Burns. I’ve also attended several Treasure Valley Food Coalition dinner-and-a-movie events about backyard poultry, grass-fed beef and other sustainable food topics. But I moved back to California before I could participate in the Tomato Independence Project. So, I’m grateful she agreed to discuss the local foods initiative with UC Food Observer this year.

Q) Why did you start the Tomato Independence Project in the spring of 2013? How is a tomato a clear example of the benefits of locally grown food?

Janie Burns: There are many ways to tell the story of the food system.  Many of the stories seem to have no relevance to our everyday lives until you put them into a familiar framework.  The tomato is one of the most-consumed vegetables in the US, right after potatoes. The Treasure Valley Food Coalition wanted to use a popular food to tell the story of the food system. And not just any popular food, but one where there are clear local advantages.

Everyone knows a supermarket winter tomato is dreadful, a stark difference from a luscious, right-off-the-vine, warm-from-the-sun homegrown one.  Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown in U.S. gardens.  People love a good tomato.  We called it a Trojan vegetable to talk about seasonality of foods, farm workers, pesticides, soil fertility, transportation costs and the vulnerabilities of sourcing our food from so far away.   If you can find something that people care about, you can talk about other dimensions of it.

Q) What are some of the ways this project is supported in the region?

tomatoland cover of bookWe work with a range of partners to use the tomato as a means of furthering their own work.  For example, nurseries were a natural fit:  they sell plants and seeds and gardening equipment.  They offer classes to help people be successful gardeners.

We used the book Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook as a way of reaching book clubs and students.  The author came to Boise and spoke at high schools and colleges and several public events.

Restaurants were a key partner, offering tomato dishes.  We provided some co-operative advertising, which featured the farmers, the menu and the restaurants.  We’d like to think our efforts brought them more customers and more appreciation for locally grown foods.

Q) Tell us about your tomato tasting contest! Can you name some of the favorites?

Janie Burns: Over 150 different varieties were tasted at one event hosted by a local nursery.  It was very popular with entries ranging from the tried-and-true stalwarts to some tomatoes grown by recent immigrants to the Boise area.  Everyone has their own favorite, but Brandywine is a consistent winner.

TomatoTastingTales2013Past Winners: Here’s a comprehensive list of 2013 tomato taste test winners. In 2014, tomato winners included Moonglow, Hillybilly Potato Leaf and Malakhiktovaya Shkatulka (best slicers), and Green Zebra (most tangiest). In 2015, winners included Sun Gold (best small), Jersey Devil (best paste) and Kellogg’s Breakfast (best slicers).

Q) What were some of the biggest surprises you’ve encountered since you started the program?

Janie Burns: The nurseries told us they had previously only offered general gardening classes.  When we encouraged them to offer Successful Tomato Gardening sessions, there was standing room only.  People want to focus on one vegetable and do it well.  The passion surprised us.

Q) What’s new or different this year?

Janie Burns: Each year we have tried to leverage the work of the past into new partnerships.  This year, we are handing off the Farm Verification Program that we initiated to our local foods distributor, Idaho’s Bounty.  They can certainly verify whether or not a restaurant is using locally-grown produce.  With recent articles questioning whether or not restaurants are actually purchasing local food as they claim they are, this is an important consumer service.

Editor’s note: Here’s a Tampa Bay Times article about false farm-to-table claims at restaurants.

Q) What advice would you give to other regions of the country interested in similar programs? 

Janie Burns: Using a popular food is a good way to talk about food system issues. Once you have a food item, think about what community partners might have an interest in helping the program.  Businesses are always looking for customers. Book clubs are looking for books that tie to a larger community theme. Clubs and service organizations welcome speakers on new topics. Kids’ activities that tie to the topic always influence the parents. Let your imagination run wild. Let partners do what they do best.

heirloom-andrew malone flickr
Andrew Malone

Q) What worries you about the food system? What gives you hope?

Janie Burns: I am most worried about the fragility of the system.  We are utterly dependent on every piece of a complex system running well.  The best part about working in local food is the ability to create real change in your own life and health.

When people decide to determine their own food destiny, it is a powerful thing.  I’m seeing more and more people taking back the power they ceded to the industrial food system.  They are asking questions and voting with their dollars.  It isn’t easy to change a huge system, but each of us can do something positive three times a day.

Thanks for your time, and good luck again this year!

Here’s a video from the Treasure Valley Food Coalition that explains the Tomato Independence Project further. We can’t promise you won’t get hungry watching it.

You might also enjoy: Gardeners Making a Difference or perhaps Local Foods and the Urban-Rural Divide.