Farm Focus: Tomato planting and heirlooms

by Lael Gerhart

Closeup view of a rich red heirloom tomato with smaller green striped tomatoes in the background

Lovely heirlooms from our 2011 crop

Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! Our crew was busy last week putting 850 tomato starts into the ground. Farmer Al is always up to something new on the farm, and the addition of tomatoes to our crop has been exciting. While often lumped in with vegetables, the edible part of the tomato plant is the fruit–the part which contains the plant’s seeds. Those who have delighted in farm or garden-ripened fresh tomatoes know how sweet and delicious they can be. They are also super versatile–great for fresh eating, cooking, preserving, and drying.

Deva Rajan of Moraga Garden Farms grew our tomato starts. He plants the seeds in his greenhouse in January and nurtures them until we are ready to put them out in the field. With his help, we will have a head start on harvest. We should be picking our first tomatoes around late July. (Check out this youtube video by Clayton Roth featuring Deva and Moraga Gardens!)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, MO grew most of the seeds for our tomatoes. This is a family owned and operated seed company started by Jerre Gettle, who printed his first seed catalog at age 17. Baker Creek now has the largest selection of heirloom seeds varieties in the U.S. with over 1,300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

A man on a tall ladder picking cherries high in a tree.

Harvesting cherries while the tomatoes are being planted.

Heirlooms are generally considered varieties that have been grown for at least 3 generations, although sometimes for centuries. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, which means insects, birds, the wind, or other natural mechanisms are responsible for pollination. They produce seeds that can be saved and replanted to produce a plant true to its parent. In a world where plant varieties are in massive decline and plant genetics are increasingly owned and controlled by large corporations, the preservation of heirloom varieties is an important component of food security and sovereignty. In 1983 the Rural Advancement Foundation conducted a survey of 66 crops, which found that 93 percent of the seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903 had gone extinct.

When we plant a broad range of crop varieties, it helps maintain genetic diversity in our seed supply, and it is also fortunate for us that heirlooms are prized for their flavor! We have carefully selected 8 varieties of heirloom tomatoes this season, as well as three tried and true hybrid varieties. We will include a tomato variety highlight in each week’s newsletter to give you a sense of the flavor and use characteristics we will be harvesting. Our tomatoes will be coming with us to Farmers Markets and we will be offering them as an Add-on to your CSA boxes, so we do hope you will try a few of them this season!

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