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034: Swimming in a Sea of Tomatoes - Agricultural Produce in India

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

After attending Vikram Doctor’s talk on Indian food policy as part of the Studying Food workshop yesterday, I was reminded of my experience with tomatoes near our farm stay Hide and Teak. Have shared some of my thoughts below.

Last year, a sea of tomatoes seemed to consume me. I was re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable Miracle” in which she waxed eloquent about heirloom tomatoes in the United States. They all had such delightful names including “Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, Juane Flammes, Martino’s Roma, Trust, and Dolly Pattons!” (p. 101).

As an urban-dweller, I did not know anything about the tomato varieties in India. When I went shopping in Sahakarnagar, Bangalore, sometimes I found round, small firm ones and at other times slightly longish, juicy ones lying in wicker baskets. And occasionally I would duck into Namdharis, and step out with a small plastic box in which were huddled a group of tiny cherry tomatoes.

When I lurked around online, I found some of the Indian varieties such as “fireball, desi Dixon, king humbere, and red cloud” on the Indian vegan blog, but for the life of me I would not have been able to identify which was which!

Last year, all around our farmstay ‘Hide and Teak’, farmers were busy readying their fields for planting tomatoes. Our neighbour on the farm, Kumar, was hedging his bets, hoping to cash in when tomato prices peaked in Bangalore.

He first got day labourers to clear his 1/4 acre plot, and make long furrows in the field. Then an old, rumbling tractor arrived and dumped some bamboo sticks. These were used to construct a make-shift frame with thin plastic wires running parallel to the furrows.

Then the seeds were planted by the same group of day labourers. Once the tomato vines appeared, a group of gossiping women patiently tied each vine with jute twines. The ropes would support the ascent of the fruit laden creepers.

It takes about two to three months from the first planting to the first harvest of tomatoes. These two months were an eternity for my toddlers, who without fail would ask me daily “Mumma, are the tomatoes ripe yet?”. We waited and watched. Waited and watched until the tomatoes slowly turned from green to red.

Sometimes the price of tomatoes in the cities crash. During those times, Kumar, like other farmers arounds us, chose to let the fruits rot in the fields rather than harvest and transport them to market. He said they were more valuable as manure for the next set of crops.

The slowing down of time during farming, and the gamble that farmers take with their crops, was in stark contrast to the instant click-gratification of buying a generic kilogram of tomatoes on the BigBasket phone app. As a Bangalorean, I had a new-found appreciation for all that we take for granted in cities.

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