Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer
My dad grew up on a farm, but I did not. When I was too small to help (or care very much about helping) I remember my dad having a garden with some vegetables in our backyard. But when I was eight, we moved to an eastern city without room for a vegetable garden, so what I learned about local food production growing up was largely drawn from the brief experiences my siblings and I had each summer as we visited grandparents in the midwest.
I still don’t have a vegetable garden, but I have experimented the past two or three years with growing some tomatoes. And this year I’m experimenting with some heirloom varieties—largely as a result of reading Tim Stark’s book Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer. Though I didn’t grow up in a family that grew its own food in the backyard, I did grow up in Eastern Pennsylvania which is, apparently, a primo spot for tomato growing. Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994. Stark did not imagine he would be a tomato farmer. He started out as a management consultant and would-be writer. In 1996, he started growing tomatoes on a whim, growing hundreds of plants in his fourth-floor walk-up under fluorescent lights. That’s when tomatoes took over his life. After getting booted by his landlord, he took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania. “Farm” is putting it generously—at that time he had 2 acres dedicated to growing—land he did not even own. Twelve years later, he farms tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach and Hillbilly on 12 acres in Amish and Mennonite country not far from where I grew up. And what he grows on those acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.
Heirloom is largely a collection of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan. What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer. And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days. Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses. “After 12 years of growing vegetables, I have learned to accept that every farming season presents a unique set of conditions that invariably prove to be, on the whole, less than optimal.” The stories are at once compelling and downright funny. But most wonderful is the beautiful description of the land and the soil, and tender portraits of the people who grow the food we eat.
And as for tomatoes, Stark says that it’s the ugly tomatoes — the ones that “tend to split and crack and get beaten up a lot” — that taste the best. “The uglier, the better,” he says. So this year, I’m trying to grow some real ugly ones!