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  • Plant Pathology and the Greenhouse Tomato Industry in Ohio, 1937–82
  • Christopher Cumo (bio)

During the twentieth century, the tomato emerged as the leading crop grown in greenhouses in Ohio and the United States in general. During the first half of the century, Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease, and a virus related to Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) or Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV), if not identical to one of these viruses, threatened the livelihood of tomato growers, particularly those who managed greenhouses. To combat these diseases in Ohio, Leonard Jay Alexander bred tomatoes resistant to Fusarium wilt after 1939 and to both the fungus and the virus after 1942. Success in these endeavors earned him national as well as international recognition.

greenhouse tomato culture in the united states

During the twentieth century, the U.S. tomato crop consisted of tomatoes grown in the field and the greenhouse. Our focus is on the rise of the greenhouse industry and its problems because these issues shaped agricultural research, notably at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station (today the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center) in Wooster.

Before examining these issues, a general account of the development of tomato culture is in order. The tomato is indigenous to South and Central America, where a pre–Mexican people in the Monte Alban valley in southern Mexico first cultivated it around 200 bce.1 Europeans became aware of the tomato only in the [End Page 95] early sixteenth century, when the Spanish introduced it to Europe as a curiosity. Accordingly, the tomato was part of the Columbian Exchange, which was the transfer of plants, animals, and pathogens both ways across the Atlantic Ocean in the years following the European discovery of the Americas. In Europe, true to the stereotype, the Italians embraced it as the staple ingredient in sauces. After Europeans established the relationship between the tomato and the poisonous belladonna, its popularity diminished, especially in northern Europe. Gardeners, thinking it toxic, grew the tomato as an ornamental rather than as food.

In the seventeenth century, the English carried this misapprehension to the New World. Not until 1710 does literary evidence mention the tomato in colonial America, and then only as an ornamental.2 It was, however, being grown as food in New Orleans in 1812 and marketed in Philadelphia in 1829.3 Nevertheless, belief in its toxicity remained strong enough that in the latter year one man achieved notoriety by brazenly eating several tomatoes at the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, without becoming ill.4

Commercial tomato culture grew slowly during the nineteenth century. The fresh, ripe tomato bruised and cracked easily and spoiled after being stored less than a week without refrigeration. Also, before the discovery of vitamins, beginning in 1913, nutritionists conceived of human dietary requirements in terms of protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and minerals. The tomato, which was understood to contain little more than carbohydrates and water, was regarded as nutrient poor.5

It was, however, suitable for cultivation as fresh produce near urban markets. Rapid urbanization in the United States after the Civil War—the 1920 census revealed for the first time that more than half of the population inhabited cities—created concentrated centers of demand for fresh produce, including tomatoes.6 Large cities in the northeast and near the Great Lakes, including Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and Boston, manifested sufficient demand for fresh tomatoes that growers established greenhouses on their outskirts during the 1910s.7 In general, then, the development of the U.S. green-house [End Page 96] tomato industry has been inextricably bound to urban population size and consumption patterns.

This development, however, is difficult to measure with precision. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics has divided tomato production into the categories of fresh and processed tomatoes.8 Greenhouses have supplied tomatoes for only a portion of fresh produce, but not for processing into juice, sauce, catsup, paste, soup, or canned goods. Field tomato growers supply the rest. Joan Stemner, secretary-treasurer of the Cleveland Greenhouse Growers' Association, has estimated that greenhouses have traditionally supplied, with minor perturbations, roughly 35 percent of fresh tomatoes in the United States.9 If she is correct, one can obtain a...


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