Of Tomatoes and Time

By Carol Ann Sayle

It’s spring—our 21st as vegetable farmers. A lot of seasons have passed, and many tons of vegetables have come off of our two farms.

In 1991, as “commercial growers” near the tiny town of Gause in Milam County, we set into the sandy soil our first serious quantity of spring transplants. Homestead and Better Boy were our tomato varieties.

At that time, we’d barely heard of Pennsylvania’s heirloom tomatoes, as we’d both grown up familiar only with the little Homestead, raised to a uniformly sized, artificially ripened green hardness marketed with paste-board and cellophane packaging.

My family bought the tomatoes at the H.E. Butt grocery store on Fred Road in San Antonio; Larry’s family grew them on 40 sandy acres for the “tomato shed” alongside the railroad tracks in Gause. They carried them there green, durably hard, to withstand shipping. At home, Larry’s father, an excellent gardener like his son, cultivated some to the eating stage: red and juicy. A garden was necessary, as there were no nearby grocery stores back then, nor today. The tomato shed is long, long gone, vanished like the tomato farmers, many of whom likely nurture the soil now.

Our first crop was a success, as we’d been practicing for 10 years  (ha, after more than 20 years, we still feel like amateurs). But we had the gumption to offer those tomatoes, in paper shopping bags, to Whole Foods Market’s distribution warehouse in East Austin. I drove up in my old Cutlass convertible, the buyer came out to the parking lot, I flipped up the trunk lid and he reached in and ate a tomato right out of the bag. I was a bit shocked; I hadn’t washed them (not that they were overtly dirty, though, and if there was some sand still clinging, well, it was certified organic sand and would likely be nourishing)! He smiled and said he’d buy all of our tomatoes, but asked, “could you bring them in boxes?” Apparently bags are hard to stack in a warehouse. Anxiously, I blurted out, “boxes are so expensive!” Kindly, he went into the building and came out with a stack of used California organic vegetable boxes and we loaded the tomatoes into those. Our farm was in business!

In 1992, we bought the land on Lyons Road across from Boggy Creek and began to develop our second certified organic farm. It was nice to be able to live where we farmed and to be close to our “market”—which was, at that time, Whole Foods Market—and to our “farm stand” in front of Wiggy’s liquor store on West Sixth. In the early ’90s, there were no producers-only farmers markets.

Tomatoes have always been our number-one crop, and there have been challenges. For instance, in late May 1994, our spring tomatoes grew to picking size and were ruined by a thunderstorm with high winds and a deluge of rain. Twelve rows of tomato plants (grown in the popular stake-and-weave style) fell over each other like dominoes. The next morning, the sun faked an apology—promptly scalding one side of every red tomato.

So, looking for the proverbial lemonade, Larry constructed a small smokehouse in the woods behind the henhouse. He built slatted wooden trays, upon which we laid the tomatoes, minus their blemishes. He maintained an indirect fire as the smoke entered the structure and in five days, the tomatoes dried to bacon-like perfection.

At our on-site farm stand—which was in its first year—the smoke-dried tomatoes were a huge hit (especially since we had no fresh ones!). One fellow bought a jar of them, ate them all on the way home and returned within 20 minutes for more saying, “my wife will kill me if I don’t bring her some of these!”

The next year, Larry moved the operation to the farm in Gause, planted Roma tomatoes (meatier, less moisture) and built a larger smokehouse. Even though there was a lot of barbecuing going on in East Austin, we didn’t want to win any smoke wars!

Every spring, we still set out thousands of tomato transplants: heirlooms, cherries and at least one “regular” home-grown tomato. The Homestead has been replaced by Early Girl, which continues to please for fresh eating, and the Roma, well, it’s our official smoke-dried tomato—through good years and not so good, through floods, blossom-end rot, seed errors, bounty—whatever.

Once more, it’s time to plant them!