I’m a lucky man. In my job for Whole Foods Market® I get to work with farmers all over the country who are growing truly exceptional fruits and vegetables.
This is especially true with tomatoes. This year-round customer favorite comes in a dizzying array of varieties supplied by an overlapping mosaic of producers — large and small, local and long-haul, field and greenhouse — located throughout North America.
Many of these growers have embraced innovative new technologies and varieties to provide a consistent supply of very good tomatoes to all of us; and within our family of growers there are those who shine. In addition to the never ending search for increased production and yield, the primary goal of these growers is to deliver the amazing flavor and texture we associate with tomatoes from backyard gardens. Here are a few of these heirloom tomato superstar growerss:
Noah Barnes and Thaddeus and Freeman Barsotti of Capay Fruits and Vegetables
Founded in 1976 by Kathleen Barsotti and located in the Capay Valley just east of San Francisco, Noah Barnes and Thaddeus and Freeman Barsotti grow on 250 acres in a micro-climate ideal for tomato production. In addition to heirloom tomatoes, Capay grows a wide range of produce for sale to retailers like Whole Foods Market, as well as directly to consumers via one of the largest community supported agriculture (CSA) networks in the country.
Tutti Fruit Farms
Located near the towns of Lompoc and Los Olivos on the central California coast, Chris Caldwell grows on approximately 350 acres (100 of which are dedicated to heirloom tomato production). Chris has been farming since 1988 and is a member of a family that has been growing in California since 1850. Since his farm is located in the San Ynez valley near the coast, cool breezes often blow in off the ocean, and night temperatures tend to be much cooler than inland growers. He believes this helps with the flavor since fruit can rest a little at night, and ripen a little slower. Chris started out selling mainly in farmers’ markets in southern California and despite selling large amounts for product to retailers like Whole Foods Market, Chris still maintains a direct customer connection and following.
Bee Wise Ranch
On the other side of the Los Angeles basin in the Santa Fe Valley just east of San Diego sits Bee Wise Ranch, a certified organic farm operated by Bill Bramer for more than 35 years. Committed to sustainable agriculture since the early days of the organic movement, Bill’s farm is a model of crop diversity, growing dozens of row crops year round for retail stores and CSA customers.
Lady Moon Farms
On the east coast of the US, Tom Beddard braves the sometimes tricky weather conditions to grow heirlooms of exceptional quality and flavor. Tom cultivates acreage in three states depending on the time of year but the heirloom tomato production is mainly centered in his northernmost acreage right outside of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Organic Harvest Network
The last set of heirloom-tomato superstars comes to us by way of Giuseppe Salvato and Peter Oszaczky of the Organic Harvest Network. Since 1988 Giuseppe and Peter have helped perfect the painstaking post-harvest handling and transportation of heirlooms. They have achieved this through the support of a geographically and ideologically diverse grower base. Included are:
Located in the California central valley near Reedley, the warm inland temperatures make them one of the first growers to kick off the domestic season. Amber, Clarence and Stella Balakian also produce a wide variety of heirloom squashes.
Also located in the California Central valley near Dinuba, Hans Wilgenburg has been greenhouse farming since 1989. Specializing in tomatoes and cucumbers, Hans has also become an expert in compost and worm farming to better enhance the soil he uses to grow his vegetables.
Durst Organic Growers
Jim and Deborah Durst have been growing organic produce on a farm near Esparto, California since the early 80’s. Their fourth-generation farm is located in an area of California called Hungry Hollow at the mouth of the Capay Valley in Yolo County. In addition to producing some of the finest cherry and full-sized tomatoes, melons and asparagus, the Dursts believe in farming techniques that build soil fertility while balancing wildlife and insect ecology. The farm practices are based on the maxim “Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants.”
As we move through the waning weeks of summer and into fall I am again reminded that while our production technology and selection of modern varieties have certainly expanded the supply and seasonal availability of tomatoes, there is still a time of year (right now!) when we see remarkable fruit grown and brought to market by truly passionate people.
While you will always see tomatoes in store, the time for the best, most flavorful, peak-season heirloom varieties is fleeting. So enjoy them while you can.
Do you have a favorite type of tomato? Tell me about it in the comments below.