An Englishman’s Odyssey from ‘Safeway Slave’ to Organic California Farmer
August 1996 – In the fertile flatland between Vacaville and Sacramento, Calif., tucked among the trees a few miles from the bland interstate freeway, Frances and Nigel Walker survey their creation in progress. As the sun sets on the pale pink buildings of Eatwell Farm, the pink deepens to warmer, vaguely Tuscan shades. The farm looks more like an estate garden than a modern farm, with rows of herbs here, a riot of sunflowers there, a field of lavender and on just a couple of acres, 140 varieties of tomatoes. The Walkers did not intend to grow so many types of tomatoes. They told themselves they would cut back.
Growing heirloom tomatoes is a labor of love. They taste great but the yield can be atrocious.
“We just can’t resist, there are so many tomatoes out there,” Frances Walker says. One of her favorites is the Tangerine tomato, so named because of its color and slightly citrus flavor. But she cannot name just one favorite.
“It depends on the mood,” she says.
An increasing number of small-scale farmers like the Walkers are participating in the renaissance of the tomato, in all of its splendid diversity. Purple, green, yellow, orange and multicolored; berry-shaped, flat and long; sweet and tart–chances are there is a tomato to fit every fancy.
Every year, seed companies devoted to agricultural diversity offer an increasing number of obscure “heirloom” varieties: tasty breeds often passed down through families or developed by farmers to meet unique local growing conditions. Many heirlooms have been rescued from the brink of extinction by farmers and backyard gardeners who want more from a tomato than roundness and redness.
Heirloom varieties of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables fell victim to the modern system of food production and distribution, which emphasizes transportability and storability over taste. Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving agricultural diversity, has documented more than 3,000 varieties of vegetables that have disappeared from seed catalogs in North America since 1984, an annual loss rate of about 6 percent. Offsetting those losses, however, is the emergence of newly available varieties. Seed Savers publishes Garden Seed Inventory, a catalog that tracks the availability of every vegetable variety offered by North American mail-order seed companies. The inventory listed 4,949 varieties in 1984 and 6,483 in 1994, most of which are offered by only one or two suppliers.
Seed Savers grows more than 3,000 kinds of tomatoes, along with 650 kinds of peppers, 3,500 beans and thousands of other rare varieties at its preservation farm in Decorah, Iowa.
Growing heirloom tomatoes is a labor of love for farmers like the Walkers, who call their tomato acreage “Tomato Wonderland,” and Jim Eldon, managing partner of Fiddler’s Green, a farm in Yolo County. The Walkers and Eldon are certified organic farmers.
“The yield sometimes can be atrocious,” Nigel Walker says of heirloom tomatoes. “There’s a reason they’re not grown.”
Tasty But Sometimes Unproductive
Heirloom tomatoes often were bred for flavor, not resistance to disease, pests, heat, cold or the rigors of transport. They fetch a good price at the market, “but sometimes a variety is so unproductive, why pick it?” Eldon says. He could put months of tender care into a plant and do everything right, but a scorching hot day can cause all the blossoms to fall off.
“The biggest challenge is having nice varieties, but having ones that are productive enough so that it is as economically rewarding as it is fun,” says Eldon, a former chef and a farmer of 10 years who keeps about 25 varieties of tomatoes in regular cultivation and another 30 as trial crops.
The joy of exploring “nature’s diversity” is what makes growing heirlooms fun, Eldon says. “It’s an incredible gene pool of variability and diversity that a lot of people just don’t think about,” he says.
But people are starting to think about it, thanks to an increasingly visible supply of unusual tomatoes, as well as stories in the media singing their praises. Frances Walker recalled one time when an article about Green Grape tomatoes appeared in one of the San Francisco newspapers. The next day at the market, Eatwell sold out of Green Grapes in no time, which had never happened before, she says.
“I think it’s a situation where increased availability continues to stimulate demand” for heirloom tomatoes, says Eldon, who sells his produce at farmers markets in Berkeley, Menlo Park, Marin County and Davis. “I’m hoping it will generate increased demand for all heirloom vegetables,” he says, because the rich diversity is not unique to tomatoes.
It is up to farmers to determine whether heirloom tomatoes reach their full market potential, says Eldon, who has experimented using different breeds for sun-dried tomatoes. If farmers think of all of the possible things to do with heirlooms to make them better known and more commercially viable, “it’s as open as your imagination,” he says. Consider ketchup made from yellow tomatoes, for instance.
The popularity of farmers markets has contributed significantly to the retail revival of heirloom tomatoes, for practical reasons. Heirlooms generally have thinner skins than common commercial varieties, are more vulnerable to cracking and bruising and cannot take much handling, Nigel Walker says.
Commercial breeds have to put up with a lot of handling. After being harvested by machine, they are taken to a central warehouse, distributed to trucks, hauled for hundreds or thousands of miles, dropped off at grocery stores and placed onto produce shelves.
Growers of heirloom varieties have no choice but to operate differently. At Eatwell Farm, workers pick the ripe tomatoes by hand and place them directly into trays. The trays are loaded into the truck and taken to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers market on Saturdays. The only person to handle the tomato besides the picker is the consumer, Walker says.
‘Hell or High Water’ Customers
There is another reason heirloom varieties are economically viable for growers who sell at farmers markets as opposed to supermarkets: a different clientele. The Walkers say their customers at the Ferry Plaza market–the only market at which they sell–understand and appreciate quality and are willing to pay the extra cost of providing it.
The Walkers have a close relationship with their customers, many of whom have become year-round regulars. Nigel Walker calls them the “hell or high water” customers; they show up week after week, rain or shine, to buy whatever is in season at Eatwell. The Walkers’ customers also influence production decisions at the farm. Of those 140 tomato varieties in cultivation, only 25 are regular production crops. The rest are trial tomatoes, a result of customer requests as well as those winter days spent staring wide-eyed at seed catalogs. Some varieties take to the particular microclimate and growing conditions of the area between Winters and Davis where Eatwell is located, others fail to thrive. The Walkers take the viable ones to market and, if the customers like them, they go into regular cultivation.
One reason the Walkers grow so many trial tomatoes is that every year, more farmers start growing what the Walkers have been selling. “So we’re always looking for something new,” Nigel Walker says.
The Walkers, both 36, met at the farmers market and were married four years ago. Nigel Walker, whose grandfather was a farmer, attended an agricultural college in his native England and has been involved in agriculture for 15 years. He came to California in 1992 and worked at Terra Firma Farm in Winters. Frances Walker grew up in North Carolina, earned a history degree at Duke University and worked as a computer programmer in New York before heading west in 1986 to explore her interest in food. She started out in the restaurant business, working at Chez Panisse and Cafe Fanny in Berkeley.
In 1990, she moved to the Capay Valley northwest of Davis, where she learned organic farming at Full Belly Farm.
Nigel Walker says he used to be a “Safeway slave,” involved in large-scale commercial agricultural production in England. But there was no joy in it for him.
Now, as he looks around their fledgling 17-acre farm, Walker waxes poetic about what it means to grow things and sell directly to those who consume them. “It gives us great pleasure when people come back and tell us how wonderful something tasted,” he says. “It’s such a joyous thing.” The market is a special place for many who shop there, Walker says.
“One lady says it’s like church for her,” a place to connect and achieve understanding, he says. Walker fondly remembers another customer who picked up a tomato and said, “Ah, I can still feel the sun on them.” For the Walkers, the farm is an ongoing experiment. They are in the midst of their third season on the land, which they rent from an owner who is supportive of their ideas. They grow a wide variety of herbs, vegetables, flowers and whatever else catches their fancy and makes good business sense. Last year, they put in their first fruit trees and are excitedly watching the first peaches develop. Their goal is to have a steady flow of crops throughout the year, without overloading on any one thing. Walker can’t stand the thought of treating produce as something that must be gotten “rid of” or dumped. “What a horrible thought,” he says.
As the sun sinks lower in the western sky, Frances Walker tends to the chicken coop that has been placed in the middle of a fenced field. The chickens are also an experiment–in labor-saving fertilizer. The verdict on the project is not yet in.
“I think in this business, you’ve got to be prepared to make a fool out of yourself,” Nigel Walker says. After all, sometimes crazy ideas do work.
For the Walkers, farming is a philosophical exercise as well as a livelihood. But Nigel Walker is quick to remind you that first and foremost, farming is endless hard work. “The romance soon wears off,” he says. “What keeps me going is the customers.” Walker has one word to describe those hardy customers who come out in the rain to buy produce: “Incredible.”
– Diana L. Meredith