The War & Peace of Tomatoes

[The Amateur Gourmet is on vacation and, while he’s gone, he’s asked his friends to cover for him. Our final guest poster is not only a dear friend of Adam’s, but she’s watching his cat while he’s away! Please give a warm welcome to Stella Ragsdale. Stella just got back from spending the summer on a farm in Martha’s Vineyard and the tomato you see in the picture below is a tomato Stella picked herself. (She’s eating a tomato salad that Adam made for her before he left.) Adam will be back tomorrow from his trip–woohoo!–but he thanks Stella and all his guest posters for keeping his blog (and cat) alive while he was gone. Bring us on home, Stella.]

Tomatoes are some of nature’s most luscious fruits. But what goes in to growing them? Blood, sweat, and tears. This is Mighty Tomato reporting in from Martha’s Vineyard. As a Southerner who has been living in New York City for four years now, I found myself longing for the sun on my back and the feel of the dirt under my feet. So I fled the city this summer and came to Morning Glory Farm where I worked for the Athearns.

I am a farm worker. I work in the sun. I work in the hot dirt. If you’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard, Morning Glory Farm is the premiere farm on the island. Working on a farm is hard work but its also rewarding. And so is the food!

A Morning Glory Day starts at 7:30am. Where I lived, in the remodeled barn, where some of the other workers stay during the season, we stumble out of our rooms, put our shoes on, and come downstairs. Yes! I lived in a barn. Mornings are spent harvesting. Harvesting is the most delicious part of my day. A cherry tomato picked from the vine and wrapped in a basil leaf from another row is how I start my day! But you can’t sit around and eat all morning.

Farmers are attuned acutely to the natural rhythms of life: of sun and moon, of life and death. You gotta move FAST when it is time to plant or harvest. All the Athearns can work faster than anybody I ever seen. A typical day in August might mean picking some 600 to 800 pounds of tomatoes! I don’t only pick tomatoes and peppers however. On a typical day the field crew will gather three varieties of eggplant, four varieties of cucumbers, beets, lettuces, carrots, squash and well, anything you can think of. Kelsey might bring in the squash with Serena, while Andrew and Lila get the lettuce and Amy and Jill grab the carrots.

After weighing, bunching, and washing, its ready for the farm store. Once a week I gather the eggs when the egg lady takes the day off. The hens, I’ve discovered, like to untie my shoelaces when I have my hands full. One hen likes to steady herself on the coop ledge and then taking a flying leap at my head when I come near. Luckily I have gotten good at dodging. The hens get to go outside sometimes and they have a lot of room in the coop, not that they really seem to notice the difference. One thing for sure, I’ve decided chickens are definitely stupid animals.

Once I finish harvesting or collecting the eggs, when the sun is high in the sky, its lunch time! The field workers often sit on the lawn and talk to each other. We favor the farm bakery’s baguettes for lunch with cheese or butter. Sometimes I eat two lunches, if I am working extra laboriously. Since the corn has ripened, I eat two to three ears a day. The corn is so sweet and flavorful that most of the field workers eat it raw. You should try this if you haven’t! But only with fresh corn! We relax on the lawn until one, then its back to work!

At Morning Glory Farm I was the Tomato Chief. That means me and my crew in the afternoons would work with the tomato plants while the other crew weed like crazy, help with irrigation, and also planting. These projects we helped with too, if the tomatoes were done.

Tomato plants can be complicated. They are tender but tough. They want to grow but hate asking for help. There are two different kinds of tomatoes in this world: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate stop growing after a certain point and tend to give their fruit more all at once. Indeterminate, on the other hand, will continue to grow and provide new clusters of fruit.

Either way, the plants have to be treallased. Treallasing keeps the plants from falling over, growing rampant, and developing disease from lack of air flow. Tomatoes also have to be planted in successive crops if you want them all summer. In fact, the first tomatoes are planted in the greenhouse in January! Picking greenhouse tomatoes is a creepy business. When you pick the fruit, you cannot see over your row. The foliage is thick, thick as a heart of darkness and the world is silent except for the hum of bees. Every once and awhile you can hear the sound of something falling. In the greenhouse you always have the feeling that someone is there when you ought to be alone. Its quite strange.

But the field tomatoes in July are pure joy. The tomato crew winds string from one end of the row to the other around the tomato plants, dispersing through the field like waltzing spiders, tying up the thick foliage and wooden stakes. This is called the San Diego Basket Weave. You add strings laterally as the tomatoes grow. We also prune the plants as they grow. Pruning tomato plants allows them to grow quicker and produce fruit earlier! Sometimes pests or disease threaten the young, vulnerable plants. Simon Athearn warned me of a dangerous tomato worm. It is green with black spots and red horns. I think he said it was six feet tall but I have yet to see one.

Sometimes things go wrong. One day the tomato crew and I had to fix half of a collapsed row. If there is one thing I learned on the farm, it is the power of sheer force of will. I couldn’t sit and mope about my poor tomato plants, crushed under the weight of collapsed wooden stakes and twine. I had to fix it somehow and do it faster than a honey bee to honey. (We spent part of the afternoon holding up the fallen stakes and hammering in new metal ones). While working fast to meet the needs and requests of nature, there is also time for repose and reflection: to watch a hawk climb the skies overhead or take in the minute perfection of a tomato lead. Mother nature and her mysteries.

And, it was a real sense of satisfaction after spending days covered in dirt and sweat when I could go into the stand at the end of the day and say: Hey, buy those heirlooms! Those are my ‘maters. ‘Maters a mother would be proud of. And for dinner? All the vegetables I can eat, maybe corn on the cob with fried blue potatoes or pasta with green peppers, walla walla onions and rainbow chard. And of course, tomatoes. Yum!

7 thoughts on “The War & Peace of Tomatoes”

  1. Stella, I love your writing and I love this story! You make it sound so tough and joyful. Thanks and hope to read more sometime… do you have a blog?

  2. You had a good time! The nearest I have got this summer is the farmers’ markets in New York with all the good tomatoes all over the place. Thanks.

  3. This was a joy to read. I’ve spent about a month every year of my life living in Chilmark eating bluefish and fresh radishes from Bettlebung corner. My family has rented the same cottage (ie: shack) from a old burly couple for over 35 years, but I have always dreamed since I was a little nothing to become a farmer on the island and live in a barn. Spending my days away from the hordes of tourists lost in endless rows of tomatoes, basil, radishes, and every other conceivable type of vegetable. Reading this post let me live my dream and now all I can think about is eating fresh vegetables while watching the sunset on South Beach. Too bad I’m in China….

  4. Stella,

    Just catching up on posts as I was away on vacation. Thanks for this GREAT post while Adam was away… brought me right out there with you working the farm! Loved it! Thanks for sharing.

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