What’s going on with tomatoes right now?

My mom always told me that tomato growers were a special breed. In her early years in the business, she learned that tomato growers had a lot in common with gamblers in Las Vegas.

She said it’s not unusual for a tomato grower to lose money for 9 out of 10 years. They are always waiting for that year when they make back all the money they lost in the previous years, and more. And 2011 has been one of those terrible years for fresh tomato growers in Mexico, because of the freeze they had in February that destroyed at least 80 to 90 percent of the fresh crop.

At this time of year, fresh tomatoes are coming from Mexico and Florida and it won’t be until May that we will start to see new crop tomatoes out of the next growing region – Baja California. So where are the tomatoes coming from at this time of year, if Mexico had a horrific freeze?

Much of what you will see in the markets right now is hot house grown (vs. field grown). There are many regions in the country where there are commercial hot houses, also known as greenhouses. The southern states tend to have the most, since they have the most natural sunlight hours year-round, but amazingly, some of the biggest hot house growers in North American are located in Canada!

What’s so distinctive about these hot house grown tomatoes? First of all, they tend to be a bright, consistent color: dark red. Second, virtually all of them are sold “on the vine.” Actually, in our industry, we call them TOVs (Tomatoes on Vine).

Actually, TOVs are grown in several shapes and colors besides round and red: Small “cherry” type tomatoes on the vine, as well as yellow and orange regular-sized tomatoes.

And, there are a few growers, who have “heirloom” tomato varieties in hot houses, which come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes with fun names like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and Brandywine, to name a few. But at this time of year, you probably won’t be seeing huge displays of any kind of tomatoes, due to the reduced supplies.

So, what’s a shopper to do with limited supplies and high prices on tomatoes?

First of all, I recommend looking carefully at the tomatoes and making sure you get good quality. When they are expensive, you want to be sure you don’t get any mushy ones. Personally, I buy my fresh produce every two to three days, to avoid throwing anything out. If the tomatoes don’t look good when you are at the store, I would skip buying them for now. If you are going to cook with them to make a sauce, you may want to considering buying canned tomatoes for now, until fresh tomatoes are plentiful.

Or, if you are used to purchasing only a specific kind of tomato, like Romas or large red ones, you may want to try other varieties that look good. Cherry and grape tomatoes can be halved and tossed into salads or chopped into salsas or sauces. I have found that sometimes they have a superior flavor profile than regular-sized tomatoes.

Another alternative is ready-made refrigerated salsas, which can be found in your produce or deli department, and ready-made fresh pasta sauces. These tomato products were probably processed and prepared a few weeks or months ago and with the amazing packaging technology available to processors, they will most likely taste “just like fresh.”

But, keep visiting your produce department because the next growing area (Baja California) will be starting in about three weeks. And as we get through May and June, you will see the varieties increase and the prices will come down. California-grown tomatoes will be in full swing by June and July, as will locally grown tomatoes all over the country.

What’s on the horizon for fresh tomatoes? You will start to see more plentiful supplies of the famed San Marzano variety, which is prized in Italy for its amazing flavor profile. Many growers at Farmers Markets here in California tell us that 2011 will be the Year of the San Marzano. We can’t wait!