Growing up in the country, we would come home from school ravenous. We would pester my mom for snacks or something to eat to take the edge off until dinner. Her response was always,
"There is a whole field of tomatoes outside, go eat some."
So we did. Armed with a salt shaker, we would sit in the field and eat our fill of tomatoes. Warm, sweet, juicy. After filling up, I remember laying down in the furrow between the tomato rows, closing my eyes, and taking in the smells of the vines and fruit, and savoring the sunshine on the back of my eyelids, my senses transported me to a different reality. I never forgot the flavor of fresh grown tomatoes.
In 1990, when we started to grow fresh market tomatoes, this memory drove me to seek out tomato varieties that had that ‘fresh from the field’ flavor. We chose varieties like Marmande, Celebrity, Black Krim, Carmelo, Marvel Stripe, and of course Beefsteak. This memory also drove us to seek other heirloom varieties that seemed to carry that particular flavor stored in my memory data bank. Unknown to us at the time, there were wholesalers and retailers also looking for similar tomatoes, and we eventually made connection. This birthed for us the adventure of heirloom tomatoes.
For the last 30 years we have explored hundreds of heirloom varieties: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Over time, as more and more markets wanted to cash in on this specialty item, it seemed as if heirlooms took on a life of their own. More and more growers stepped up to service the growing demand for them. Seasonality soon became year-round as greenhouse and foreign growers became involved, and consumers started expecting them year round. Something special became mainstream.
The main pressure from markets was to provide a tomato with longer shelf life. On the farming side of things, this meant harvesting the tomatoes when they were greener, before their flavor was fully developed. I would go into the cooler on our farm and have to look at the label on the box to determine the variety because the color had not yet fully formed. We had become our own worst enemies as competition drove us to adjust our harvesting practices and to seek markets further and further away. Our ability to produce larger quantities of these heirloom tomatoes also fed this drive to seek Midwest and East Coast markets.
We have had conversations with buyers attempting to remedy this dilemma. Can you receive full color but firm? We want our tomatoes to be ripened by nature: sunshine, water, soil and time. That is where optimum flavor and nutrition come from.
And, don't get me wrong, our tomatoes are good! Like I mentioned, the time and energy we have spent in variety selection has helped tremendously in that regard. But we don't see the industry changing anytime soon and we feel like it's a race to the bottom. Ripe, juicy tomatoes just don't transport well. And therein lies the problem. We are becoming the victim of an industry that, as Andy Rooney so eloquently states, “produces tomatoes perfect in every respect except that you can’t eat it."
So, for the first time in 30 years, we will not be growing heirloom tomatoes for market. We will be taking a sabbatical from the crop in 2018 in order to reconnect with our original intentions and figure out what those intentions mean in today’s world:
How do we produce an heirloom tomato that we are proud of, that reminds people of their childhood and proves to people that real, ripe tomatoes are not bland or mealy, but bursting with flavor?
How do we provide this quality of heirloom to our customers, but still operate within a food system that is limited by time and shipping constraints?
How do we justify growing this crop in an increasingly challenging agricultural labor market?
These are a few of the many questions we will be thinking about during this growing season. And plant breeders have stepped up to this challenge. There are many new varieties that contain all the flavor and nutrition of heirlooms but are better fit for shipping at full color.
Don't worry, we won't be discontinuing heirlooms entirely. We still plan on putting a few rows of larger tomatoes in with our cherry tomatoes. My addiction to tomatoes from childhood still needs to be fed. Mostly, we want our farm to be known not just by the fruits of our labor; but by the flavor of the fruits of our labor. We will also still be producing our cherry tomatoes, and lots of them. The requirements for growing, harvesting, and delivering those to stores in a ripe and full flavor condition are a bit different.
So, to our friends and neighbors, you are always welcome to come by and get fresh heirloom tomatoes; to sit down with us in the field to eat them with a loaf of good bread and a bottle of olive oil. I’ll bring the salt shaker. Goodness is meant to be shared.
Remember, “There are only two things that money can’t buy, that’s true love and home grown tomatoes" -Guy Clark