Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark

Every year since owning my own home I’ve grown vegetables in the backyard.  My garden is not for the faint of heart.  The plants start from seeds in the sun room and by mid-July I have a small ecosystem to rival a Brazilian rainforest in the yard.  Carrots, bush beans, thyme, mint, rosemary, peppers, lavender, broccoli, eggplant… all manage to cohabit amiably until the tomatoes take over.  Once those bad boys start sprouting all bets are off.  We refer to my 6 x 9 foot patch of produce as “the heart of darkness” and a chicken wire fence is all that stands between us and it.  Take my word for it, Pennsylvania is a primo spot for tomato growing.

Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994.  He started growing his tomato seedlings under florescent lights in a Brooklyn apartment and after getting booted by his landlord took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania.  “Farm” is putting it generously – he has 2 acres dedicated to growing which, by his own account, he does not own.  But what he grows on those 2 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: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer is not an account of his journey from PA to Brooklyn and back again.  It’s no more or less than what the title claims – a mishmash of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan.  (There’s a whole archive of articles that didn’t make the cut over at Gourmet.com).  What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a damn good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer.  And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days.  That edge creeps in.  This isn’t Garrison Keillor or some heartwarming pioneer family mini-series on the Hallmark Channel.  Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses.  He’s also a bit of a crank.  He complains his way through much of the book… About not being accepted by the other farmers in his area.  About farmers competing with Real Estate developers for farmland.  About what the government charges and the paperwork it requires before you can call your produce “organic”.  About readers of Gourmet sending him hate mail after the magazine published his story about killing a groundhog as he deals with un-diagnosed lyme disease (add hypochondriac to his possible sins).  Stark’s crankiness is a big part of what makes his storytelling so much fun.

Knowing I was broke from buying a tractor and from buying all of the material that went into constructing the greenhouse, they (his Mennonite neighbor, neighbor’s son, brother and father, who all showed up seemingly unannounced one Spring day to help Stark put up his greenhouse) refused to accept payment for their services.  And I wasn’t even a member of their church.  So I tried to be a sport… I threw myself into the next job that had been lined up for the crew: putting the roof on a barn.  I found myself fifty feet up, clinging to a roof beam, cowering and dropping nails to the ground as all around me Mennonites young and old tromped along without the slightest fear in the world.  I hung in there for about forty-five minutes, nervously pounding a nail or two, clinging to dear life and dropping three nails for every one that I pounded in.  When I finally said enough was enough, maneuvering over to the ladder and climbing down to safety, everybody up on the roof thanked me with such sincerity that, in view of my tiny, cowering contribution, I decided they could only have been thanking me for not falling and breaking my neck and leaving them with a real predicament on their hands.

Parenthesis mine.

It’s when Stark switches the focus off himself, his farm, and his experiences that Heirloom becomes a bit lackluster.  An example would be in the very first chapter where he spends too much time on the story of the failed farmer who was the de facto caretaker of Eckerton Farm when Stark moved there as a child.  We’re supposed to see a parallel between the lives of Milt Miller & Tim Stark, but while I understand that the author feels some kinship to the man I never completely buy into it – or into the bigger picture Stark is trying to paint.

Tim Stark is best when he remembers to be Tim Stark… not Michael Pollan.  When he remembers that readers want to hear about his first year growing tomatoes at Eckerton, of a hellish day spent delivering snap beans door-to-door to NYC restaurants, or selling chile peppers to West Indians.  Chapters that start with sentences such as ‘It was inevitable that we would come to be labeled as “the tomato people”…’  “My wife – the farmer’s wife, always sticking her nose where she got no bidness…”  “The bucket on my tractor snapped when I tried to clear the snow that finally stopped falling at noon on Valentine’s Day…”  are the ones that really sing.  Stark still gets his point across and his message out just as clearly as does Pollan, just in his own voice (which, in my opinion, feels more relevant).

Overall, the book is a winner.  I enjoyed it so much that I recommend going online to check out that archive of articles on Gourmet.com (if you haven’t found them already).  And since Condé Nast is closing the magazine, the clock just may be ticking on that.  Hopefully that means they’ll have to publish a follow-up to Heirloom.

Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for?   It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard.  No backyard?  Sign up for a community plot.  If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.

In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf.  This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.

Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists.  This book is goes into informative detail, despite the huge amount of material it encompasses.  Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative with the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks.  In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others.  Brother Gardeners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation.  These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world.  (Interesting aside:  Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement.  There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual  plants were first introduced).  These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.

It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for what is often viewed as just the peculiar British national hobby – but was in fact the keystone of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India.  These are just a few examples.

Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff.  But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells.  It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war.  With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens,  as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements –  it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.

The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947.  It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods.  (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine).  You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming.  It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming.  Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”. [2019 updated: in 2014 Organic Gardening Magazine became Rodale’s Organic Life. In 2017 it went digital only. Later that same year, Rodale’s publishing arm was sold to Hearst. Since then, I haven’t been able to find any update as to its fate, but I think it’s safe to assume it is no more.]

Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming: [2019 update: this page no longer exists]

And here’s the link the main website:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/

Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed.  Who knows?  If we’re lucky it might happen again.