7/9/08 Vol. 5 #17

It has been so long since we have had a wet period like this, one almost forgets what it can be like.  It used to be that every July we would have a monsoon period right in the middle of tomato season, generally near the peak.  We feared these wet times as all of our hard work in tending the plants was literally washed away.  Two things were guaranteed to happen.  First the tender skinned ripe heirloom varieties would split and explode from too much water.  Tomatoes are not like balloons that you can just keep pumping up, once they begin to turn color that is as big as their skin will get, excess water has to go somewhere.  We would pick buckets and buckets full of huge Striped Germans and Cherokee Purples split across the bottom from side to side and just throw them away, every Sungold cherry would be split.  The second insult was that  the foliar disease, that haunts us, would run up the plants like someone light a match to them, exposing the remaining fruits to sunscald and increasing the chances of those fruits exploding because when there are no leaves to transpire (breath) water out of the plant any excess water makes the fruit splitting worse.  Once the disease started up the plants it was only a matter of a week or two until that crop was finished for good.  To counter act this we would plant tomatoes three times in the field to try and have some tomatoes all summer.  In reality the best tomatoes are the ones planted in late April right after frost because they grow the biggest plants to support great fruit with great taste.  Plants grown later in the summer just never get as big or set fruit as well.  As the days get shorter in August and then the nights begin to cool off in September it affects the flavor of the tomatoes too, never as intense as fruit ripened in the middle of the summer.  Enter the Big Tops, the cathedrals of tomato production.  We knew if we could keep those plants dry and control the water to their roots we could grow incredible tomatoes.  The trick was that smaller greenhouse structures can’t hold enough plants and get too hot in the middle of the summer.  The huge size of the Big Tops (24 feet wide and 13 feet high) makes it just like growing the plants out in the open but with a thin plastic roof just over the plants.  Now instead of only producing for four or five weeks, that April planted crop will produce for eight or nine weeks or longer and the fruit quality is nearly perfect.  So now when these rainy periods come, I just smile and sleep well, it’s a miracle!

Interesting day yesterday.  We spent most of the day being interviewed by a pair from the National Academy of Sciences for a study being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Kellogg Foundations titled “Twenty-First Century Systems Agriculture”.  Twenty years ago the National Academies released a ground breaking report “Alternative Agriculture” that showed, definitively for the first time, that sustainable and organic approaches to farming actually worked and were as profitable as conventional agriculture.  Now two decades later they are doing it again but with a broader scope than just economics.  Using fact-finding workshops, data analysis and case studies to identify the scientific foundations of sustainable farming systems.  Somehow (it’s always a mystery to us) we were chosen to be one of the nine farms nationwide as one of the “real world” case studies.  They sent seven pages of questions that they wanted to cover (enough to scare anyone) but it turned out to be a wide ranging conversation about how we farm.  As Betsy said, “We had the easy part, they have to try and make a report out of that conversation!”

Picture of the Week
Happy tomatoes under gray skies