Tomatoes: Fresh from the Farm
Mar 01, 2011 12:14AM ● Published by Anonymous
The real tomatoes arriving on farm stands this month, are a far cry from those pale grocery store facsimiles shipped hard, green, and tasteless. Now is the time to satisfy our palates with local, luscious varieties, picked at the peak of ripeness. This month What’s Up? highlights three farms, each offering its own tomato delicacies.
Ushered out of Winter
Gordon Wirth, 84, and his son Gary start planting tomatoes at their Pasadena farm on January 15. They laugh at snow because they tuck their seeds into the dirt floors of their four heated greenhouses.
“I tie cord to the ceiling and let the tomatoes grow about 10 feet tall,” says Wirth. “I use eight miles of cord and 80,000 clips to hold the tomatoes to the string. They just grow and grow and grow.”
Once the tomatoes are hanging from the ceiling the added 10 tons means the Wirths need to reinforce the roofs of the greenhouses with 77 two-by-fours. “But it’s so nice to stand up to pick your tomatoes,” laughs Wirth.
They plant varieties developed in Holland specifically for greenhouses: robust red tomatoes named Match, Trust, and Blitz—and an orange variety called DeOrange.
They never spray. These tomato varieties resist common diseases. When insects come into the greenhouse, says Wirth, they drop dead from the heat.
Ready by mid-May, the Wirths’ tomatoes give us a first taste of summer eating. Customers flock to the pair’s stand at the Riva Road farmers’ market, eager for that first tomato of the season. They’ve learned to arrive early.
“I love those tomatoes,” says Wirth. “But when 500 to 600 people taste them and want more and more and more, I can’t keep up with it. I’d need four or five more greenhouses.”
His aging 20-year-old greenhouses and rising fuel costs give him pause.
“I am getting older,” says Wirth, “and the children are going to take over. They want to do it, but so many things are bothering us now.”
Eager customers and the love of farming keep him going.
“I just can’t stop,” he says, eyes crinkling with his ready smile. “It’s in my blood.”
Pick -Your -Own
By July traditional farmers catch up. Sun-sweetened and rain-blessed tomatoes fill the farm stands. Home gardeners collect their own backyard varieties. If you desire picked-today freshness but don’t have your own garden, Kent Fort Farm in Stevensville welcomes your visit.
Tucked down on the southern end of Kent Island, off Eastern Bay, Steve Mason’s 15-acre farm is loaded with delicacies. His biggest crops are peaches and blackberries, and when they ripen, in mid-July, his tomatoes are ready too.
Wander among his 18 rows of vegetables to find big, juice-filled beefsteaks and delicious smooth-skinned Goliaths. Mason never sprays his tomatoes—these varieties also resist disease. The handsome, large beefsteaks have long been a favorite for BLTs, and the Goliaths, at just under a pound, offer rich-red perfection for slicing for a [sandwich or fresh salad. In just minutes you can turn a sun-warmed tomato into a picnic.
“I’ll pick some and put them out on a wagon,” says Mason. “But for the most part people want to pick their own. It’s neat to pick your own stuff.” From families to senior citizens to “couples just looking for something to do,” Kent Fort Farm draws people who prefer selecting their produce from vines and branches to grabbing it off grocers’ shelves. Open Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Kent Fort Farm offers farm-fresh taste at you-pick prices.
Hungry for Heirlooms
For a special treat visit Deep Cove Farm of Churchton’s stand at an Anne Arundel County farmers’ market. Just look for the multicolored tomatoes.
“The Cherokee Purple was probably our biggest seller,” says Kathy Ostrowski-Morris. “Some was the color and some was the flavor, so we tried the Black Krim this year, and the Black Prince last year.”
A special enzyme under the skin gives these dark tomatoes their color. Slice through the burgundy skin of a Cherokee Purple to the deep orange-red inside. Note the Black Krim’s dark green and red hues, then taste its dense and complex flavor—more tart than Cherokee Purple’s. Each adds a new dimension to tomato taste.
Variety is key to Deep Cove’s success in selling heirloom tomatoes.
“The Yellow Brandywine was a distinct seller by itself, and then the Pink [Brandywine] and the Eva Purple Balls,” says Ostrowski-Morris. “So we added Aunt Ruby’s German Greens, supposed to have a little zest, along with the Green Grape and the White Wonder. A lot of people get into the design of their salads, so you can have black, red, yellow, green, all in one salad. People say, Oh look—Martha Stewart!”
Selling heirlooms hasn’t always been easy. Customers were often wary of the odd colors and the higher prices. Ostrowski-Morris found a solution.
“No one was buying Yellow Brandywines five years ago. So I made Golden Heirloom Soup and gave out free samples at the markets. From that point forward, I have never had trouble selling Brandywine Yellows.”
The Challenge of Growing Heirlooms
Heirloom seeds often have been handed down through families for generations. Each variety carries its own unique genetic characteristics—color, flavor, and tolerance for weather changes. Different definitions of heirloom include natural pollination, no hybrid breeding. or genetic modifications, and, for some purists, the variety must be at least 50 years old. Their robust flavors and beautiful colors have drawn loyal fans. So why doesn’t everyone grow and sell heirlooms? Because it’s hard.
One of the heirlooms’ prized features also makes them challenging to harvest and transport. Their thin, silky skins are prone to splitting. Picking must be done with great care—squeeze too hard and they crack. “You can just drop field tomatoes in the box and they’re fine,” says Ostrowski-Morris, “but heirlooms you have to carry very carefully and set them down. If you drop them they are going to crack, then you might’s well throw them out.”
Even the hearty plants, when loaded with tomatoes, need special care.
“We stake all our heirlooms,” says Ostrowski-Morris. “The tomato plants grow six feet high, like a tree. We do something called a Florida weave. We have two tomato plants between two five-foot stakes and take the line up one side and back on the other side. Just tying up the tomatoes takes about six rolls of string. Those heirlooms are about a pound each, and you need all that string to hold them.”
Tomatoes are prone to several diseases: two kinds of wilt and leaf spot and tobacco mosaic virus. Then there are the pests. Though many varieties of field tomato are bred to be resistant to these diseases, heirlooms are not.
“The heirlooms don’t have good disease resistance,” says Kathy’s husband, William Morris, whose grandmother bought the 20-acre farm in 1908. “They’re fragile and take a lot of care, but the trade-off in flavor is the thing.
“One malady tomatoes get is blossom-end rot,” he says, turning over a Yellow Brandywine whose base has turned black. During pollination a shortage of water can lead to an imbalance of calcium, affecting the fruit. Though common, it doesn’t affect the whole plant.
“Say on the fifth cluster you have a shortage of water for some reason in the afternoon,” says Morris. “You can have a tomato on every cluster on the fifth one up at the same height through the whole field. It’s amazing. Home gardeners get this all the time and they panic. They let them get dry.”
Morris uses drip irrigation to keep the heirlooms well watered during the dry days of summer.
To avoid disease they rotate their tomatoes to different fields each year, not returning to the same field for three years. The weed-thwarting plastic laid under the plants is never reused. Stakes are washed at the end of each season. “It only takes a teaspoon of soil to get a colony of these soil organisms,” says Morris, “and they will transmit from one field to the other.”
Morris and Ostrowski-Morris minimize their use of sprays. Last year an early influx of tomato hornworms required dosing the plants when they were young, but that was it. “We want these as natural as can be,” says Morris.
Flavor Makes the Work Worthwhile
You’ll rarely find an heirloom in the grocery store. If you do, the price is usually sky-high.
“Chain stores don’t carry heirlooms,” says Morris. “They don’t handle them the way they need to be handled. You’ve got a hundred hands a day that’s got to pick that tomato up and fondle it; the heirlooms can’t take that. I tell people [at the farmers’ market if you want to squeeze it, you’re taking it home.”
Determined home gardeners have started planting their own.
“I sell a lot of heirloom plants to home gardeners,” he says. “Most are aware of the work of them but feel like it’s worth it.”
“I make ratatouille with the White Wonders,” says Ostrowski-Morris. “The lighter the color the tomato, the less acidic it is. Also, it is a little meatier. You aren’t going to get as much sweetness as you will with the Black Krim. I experimented with them this year; each year we try a new flavor and see how our customers like them.
“Each is a little bit different,” she says. “If you are cooking, and you want a strong tomato flavor base, use the lighter ones. I use the yellows in Golden Heirloom Soup, the Black Krims in omelets.”
Deep Cove Farm’s tomatoes are picked no more than two to three days before you see them on the stands. Last year on market days they easily sold 300 pounds.
“You want fresh flavor,” says Ostrowski-Morris, “we’ll give you fresh flavor.”
Golden Heirloom Soup
5 pounds yellow tomatoes, washed and quartered
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Combine in large pot and simmer until tomatoes are soft. Puree. Garnish with 1 bunch fresh chives, finely chopped small, colorful heirloom tomatoes cut into interesting shapes, Extra virgin olive oil