A farmer in Odessa, Minnesota, is out to change the world, one heirloom tomato at a time.
Ardie Eckhardt, a fourth-generation family farmer, was recently awarded a 2004 SARE grant for her proposal to bring heritage tomatoes to home gardeners and consumers. Her three-part approach will provide heirloom tomato plants to gardeners and farmers, provide fresh tomatoes directly to her local co-op, and educate and encourage others to use heirloom varieties in their cooking and gardening.
Heritage vegetables come from seeds and plants that have been passed down from generation to generation. The amount of varieties of one vegetable can be astounding provide an important genetic diversity to the gardening world. In tomatoes particularly, this diversity means an incredible array of tastes and flavors unmatched by any grocery-store tomato.
Eckhardt says, “Of course, there are lots of scientific and ecological reasons for maintaining diversity in what we eat and what we grow. And those are important and reason enough to grow heirlooms and keep them in use. But I have to admit, I grow heirlooms because I like to eat, and I like to eat really good food.”
Eckhardt has grown heirloom tomatoes for four years. “The first year I grew heirlooms happened to be a very good year for tomatoes and a little success with those first plants has led to a passion for more. And, because I had more plants than I needed, I was able to share with my gardening friends and family. Sharing the sense of experimentation, along with the obvious difference in taste, just made the effort more fun.” She now has built a group of test gardeners who have reported high-quality, strong-stemmed, disease-free plants.
This type of awareness about the benefits and taste of heritage vegetables can benefit farmers and consumers on a large scale. As word spreads among vegetable lovers and other producers, Eckhardt will be able to share some of her research about heirloom tomatoes. Eckhardt purchases her seeds from Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa.
As an avid tomato grower, I discovered that my community of gardeners was unaware of the diversity of heirloom varieties and unfamiliar with the importance of diversity in preserving varieties. The joy of discovering the optimum variety for a specific use in the kitchen, and the connection between really good food and heirloom varieties needed to be made; which has lead to applying for a grant to assist in spreading the word.
To grow and introduce heritage tomato varieties to local consumers and growers with intent to create a market for selling tomato seeds and plants. Also to create an awareness of the importance of preserving genetic diversity.
The goals of this project were to distribute samples of 25 heirloom varieties among local gardeners and growers to expose as many people as I could to the diversity and flavors of heirloom varieties. I hoped to assist commercial growers as well in building a market and understanding of heirloom varieties. It was also an opportunity to further experiment within my own garden and in my own kitchen and share that experience with others.
A great deal has been written about growing tomatoes; and the availability of cherished heirloom seed varieties is abundant. However, although several seed catalogs provide heirloom seed, most local home gardeners do not start tomatoes from seed, but buy a few plants from local nurseries. Within my region, no nursery provided heirloom plants. This grant enabled me to provide a wide choice to a number of willing gardeners, and provided an opportunity for feedback, taste tests, and individual garden trial. Prior to choosing test varieties, I read a great deal, and built a bibliography of the books I thought provided the best information geared to heirlooms. I wanted to convey to the growers and consumers that an ‘all purpose’ tomato is not what good eaters are looking for. I wanted to make the connection between the kitchen and the varieties being tested. We’re looking for the optimum tomato for each and every purpose in the kitchen.
I provided almost 600 plants to 45 individual gardeners and 2 commercial growers and to a demonstration garden planted by the Land Stewardship Office in Montevideo. I did a radio spot at a local FM station that hosts a regular garden show to talk about heirloom varieties and flavor. Since the local food coop taste testing was not providing the numbers of people I hoped to reach, (one of the commercial growers I provided tomato plants to, continued to host a small farmers market at the coop through the season.) I instead provided tomatoes to a local restaurant for a week long feature at the restaurant; I made tomato photo posters to advertise the availability of the heirlooms at the coop and at the restaurant. I participated in a Slow Food Meal attended by community leaders active in organic and sustainable agriculture where I featured the heirloom varieties I grew. I provided tomatoes and expertise at a tomato tasting hosted by the Land Stewardship office at their heritage garden plot. I provided sun dried chutney and fig tomatoes (a recipe from a book first published in 1893) and recipes for one of the locations for the regional art crawl. I also provided tomatoes for the Commanderie de Boreaux wine to complement tomatoes, and the restaurant was provided with sample tomatoes through the summer and prior to the meal to test in the restaurant. The chef and I spoke to this very knowledgeable food group. My address was geared towards flavor in choosing varieties for specific purposes in the kitchen, diversity and supporting local producers. I provided attractive gift baskets of sample tomatoes with herbs for each participant.
The other component of my grant revolved around production issues. I was successful in picking the first ripe tomatoes prior to July 4th. However, most of my growers, as well as gardeners I interviewed throughout the state had late harvests, I believe due to the very warm summer weather. I believe that starting my tomatoes in mid to late March, then transplanting them into large 6 to 7 inch pots into my cold frame forced the tomatoes into early production. I transplanted the plants into the garden June 1. This does not explain why my other growers did not all have early crops as well. The only variable is the early and heavy mulch with pondweed might have been a factor. The pondweed mulch does keep soil temperature less variable; and less subject to the factors (high temperatures) that slowed ripening among other tomato producers
Being able to bring tomatoes to market early is important. Demand is high early in the summer season. Few of my other growers had the kind of size and weight that my plot produced. I have sandy soil, which drains well, and I did not use any other fertilizer. Soil tests indicated a great improvement in soil composition, although the tests of pond weed mulch as a fertilizer were inconclusive, though clearly a good mulch for weed control and moisture retention.
Providing samples, recipes, and taste tests are helpful in introducing buyers to the concept of diversity. People have strong preferences in tomatoes and can be amazingly reluctant to try something unfamiliar, particularly at a higher price. Taste trials accompanied with a salsa. Chutney, salad, almost anything seemed to generate a lot more enthusiasm and understanding. “They really are sweeter.” The colors really do make a more beautiful salad.” “These really are the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.” “Wow, what a difference in flavor.” In my fifth year of testing varieties, I’ve established the core varieties I will grow in the future with only one or two experimental varieties, I intend to advertise plants and tomatoes next year as the “best of taste tests” and maintain reasonable diversity for my kitchen and market.
Educational & Outreach Activities
SARE provided a press release printed by the Ortonville paper. I received feed back from one person about this article. I received no feedback from the radio spot I did, except for the person who interviewed me. The local restaurant program of offering tomato specials for the week and the large art photo posters attracted a good deal of conversation. One of my growers took a couple tomatoes he grew to the paper and they featured him in an article that was posted at the restaurant as well. This generated no sales for me, but did create some feedback locally; and at least one loyal customer for my plants. Individual growers were generally very supportive and positive about their results. I had more than on however, but their “standard” tomatoes from the local nursery as a back-up to the plants they got from me. I heard every possible garden disaster story. Taste tests as the Land Stewardship taste testing provided the full spectrum of personal favorites; almost to the point of being statistically irrelevant. The salsa I made motivated more response from participants than any individual tomato. Seemed to bring home the fact that the varieties I used were sweeter and more flavorful; and allowed me to stress the fact that the varieties I used were sweeter and more flavorful; and allowed me to stress the fact that tomatoes should each have their specific kitchen purpose. Growers were very good about providing feedback regarding their favorites; through not always did they label or remember the varieties they tested.
I’ve had numerous requests for plant orders for next spring; which will be the true test as the effectiveness of the Outreach component. My order form will include a summary of the results from the varieties this year similar to the attached descriptions I used this year.
On the side:
One of the best parts of this grant process was getting feedback from producers. I never missed an opportunity to talk ‘tomato’ with folks, and gardeners are always willing to share their stores of woe in the garden, worries over the weather, and successes, along with the burdens of too many tomatoes. I requested and shared recipes to continue to make the connection between heirloom and flavor. I heard disaster stories of winds carrying tomato cages to the neighbors, guinea hens that raided the first crop of tomatoes, birth of new babies that diminished time in the garden, lots of exclamations about “How come you have such early tomatoes? Mine are late,” questions about disease, and careful consideration regarding ‘best of crop’ discussions. I received regular reports from a Brainerd area gardener, who called weekly with progress. People in the region who didn’t always know my name came to know me as the ‘tomato lady.’ One grower raised about 12 plants in pots on his deck… most of my heirloom varieties are indeterminate with season long growth and are large plants. He didn’t seem to mind and was thrilled with his crop. My favorite grower was gruff, crusty old character, short on words that showed up one day with two specimens to show me. He’s just been to the post office to weigh the tomatoes, had stopped at the local restaurant to show and tell, and then proceeded to the next town’s newspaper to get his picture taken. He demanded an order for plants next year, (He pickles the tomatoes in garlic flavored brine, a recipe from his grandmother.) Another highlight was participating in the gourmet meal with the Bordeaux gourmet and wine club. This is a group of very sophisticated foodies. Each of their meetings is organized by a club member who plans the meal with a chef, and in this case, centered the meal around my heirloom tomatoes. Each course is accompanied by a couple of wines to compare with the food. This club only drinks Bordeaux wines, usually not an accompaniment to tomatoes. It was a challenge they met, at least from my less sophisticated tastes. It was an opportunity for me to make a strong argument for supporting local producers and talk about the production end of food and flavor. Plus I enjoyed a remarkable meal.
My recommendation to other producers would be to offer diversity, provide samples and recipes, be patient, (It takes time to build customers for any new product), rotate the crop to help insure against soil born disease, use manure, and be creative in establishing relationships with new markets. Presentation is important. Do not transplant to garden before June 1 in my region. This risk of cold weather too great and early planting into garden is not going to guarantee an early harvest.