Tim Stark ’84 is a Pennsylvania writer and farmer. This essay is adapted from the first chapter of his memoir, and recounts the beginnings of a farm that today provides vegetables to many of New York City’s most celebrated restaurants. Copyright © 2008 by Tim Stark. From the book Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
An unsustainable writer’s life — hunkered down at a desk on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone — proved to be the soil in which the farmer within me took root. Out in the street one wintry March evening, pacing and frothing over poverty, injustice, and those politely worded impersonal rejection letters quarterlies dispense the way banks once handed out toasters, I came upon a trash bin loaded with basement scraps: water pipes, furring strips, two-by-fours studded with nails that could be straightened out. From these scraps, I saw in a flash of insight, I could construct a seed-germination rack. In the gardening catalogs, a deluxe seed-starting kit, complete with full- spectrum light and soil-heating mats, cost $800. Which I didn’t have.
What I did possess — or so I fancied — was a farmer’s resourcefulness. Four years earlier, I had started a vegetable garden on the land I had grown up on in Pennsylvania. Road trips in a battered Toyota pickup kept me and my landlord flush in tomatoes and pesto. I had never given serious thought, until this moment, to expanding into a truck patch. It was an idea so impractical it bordered on fiction. Most everything I planted — peas, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets — got chewed down to nubs by deer and groundhogs. Whether these fur-bearing gourmands were susceptible to puritan superstitions about nightshades, I don’t know, but come August, you’d look at my garden and think the only thing I’d planted was tomatoes. The vines strafed the basil and thyme, shaded the sun-loving peppers, and strangled the zucchini, which, only weeks earlier, armed with baseball-bat-sized fruit, had conquered the same ground. As for the tomatoes plumping up on those vines, some looked more like peaches, pears, or Cinderella pumpkins. There were purple, white, pink, and green orbs of musky softness whose rich, acidic juices colonized the canker sores that throbbed in my mouth until my addiction petered out in September. This jungle of sumptuous, mismatched love apples had its origins in winter days spent poring over the annual yearbook of the Seed Savers Exchange, a phonebook-like compilation of non-hybrid, heirloom seeds offered for a small fee by the gardeners, master and amateur, without whom the tomato would be red for eternity. Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter. I could not help noticing how these tomatoes responded to me in ways that women, bosses, and literary editors never had.
It took five trips to drag my Dumpster scraps up three flights to my apartment. I bought cheap shop lights and hung them from the water pipes an inch above my seeded trays. A week later, my writer’s garret was home to 3,000 fledgling tomatoes, stretching toward fluorescent bliss.
Alas, you can’t file away 3,000 tomato seedlings like another so-so draft. I had always replenished my writer’s war chest with freelance consulting gigs, so to support my tomatoes, I took on a consulting job in Albany. When the seedlings outgrew their germination trays, I spent a weekend potting them up into individual plugs, which meant I now had to accommodate 40 plug trays. I bought more shop lights — enough to satisfy the photosynthetic needs of half my seedlings — and put the tomatoes on 12-hour shifts, half the trays soaking up the fluorescent rays while the other half slept. Since a sliver of light will keep a seedling awake until it keels over of insomnia, I returned to the street and hauled home four refrigerator-sized boxes so the slumbering trays could be placed in the pitch dark.
I was keeping farmers’ hours, especially when I had to catch the 6 a.m. train to Albany. Up at 4:30 in the morning to put my seedlings through the Chinese fire drill, transferring the sleepers from the boxes to the lights, bedding down the ones that had been up all night, watering and inspecting, and checking on the chile peppers germinating on soil-heating mats. Another Chinese fire drill when I got home in the evening. My bedroom was a humid microcosm, bugs helicoptering here and there, the damp smell of tomato musk everywhere.
Once, during a meeting in Albany, I convinced myself I had forgotten to insert the thermometer into the soil of my germinating chile peppers that morning. Horrific scenarios preyed on my imagination: With the thermometer exposed to air, the heat mats would grow hotter, the chile seedlings would fry, the refrigerator boxes would ignite. I left the meeting early and flew home to New York City, convinced I would have to rescue my seedlings from a burning brownstone.
As it turned out, the thermometer was lodged snugly in the soil, where it belonged.
City life agreed with my tomatoes. Unharried by the elements, their first brush with adversity came when I carried them up to the roof. The real sun was no 40-watt bulb. My seedlings nearly wilted to death. I spent every free moment weaning them from the fluorescent lights, hauling them onto the roof, then back down when the wilting started. Adaptation to the sun brought with it a burst of growth: My seedlings needed larger containers and more space than my room could afford. But I would need to construct cold frames on the rooftop to protect them from the unstable April weather. My landlord intervened when I found a trash bin full of windows for my cold frames.
This was a landlord who, during lean months, kindly had accepted tomatoes in lieu of rent. Concerned that my cold frames would take flight in the wind, he evicted my tomatoes.
Two trips in my Toyota pickup brought the seedlings back to my boyhood home in Pennsylvania, to Eckerton Hill Farm. The only labor I could afford was pro bono, so I convinced all of my friends who were doctors and lawyers that it would be fun to come to the country for a weekend to transplant two acres of seedlings with garden trowels. From there, my first season as a farmer unfolded as if the inverse of Murphy’s Law was at work. Although I had no irrigation, the clouds delivered every week. When buyers at the local produce auction refused to bid on my gangly, multicolored misfits, Greenmarket, the New York City farmers’ market, offered me space. And so, back to that beautiful mosaic of a city they went, these upstarts with the quirky immigrant names: Black Krim, Extra Eros Zlatolaska, German Johnson, Rose de Berne.
The rest of that first season is a frenetic blur of pulling weeds and picking tomatoes and begging for people — my girlfriend, mother, neighbors, anyone — to help me pick tomatoes.
And hawking tomatoes. Pulling into Union Square Greenmarket in the morning, always late from having picked until dark, we always had a voracious crowd waiting for us.
I sold out every time.
As the season wore on, though, I began to feel toward this lucky crop the way a father might feel toward an onerous brood of children, wearily anticipating the day the last brat gets hauled off to college. I remember the Friday night my girlfriend and I came into the city to deliver tomatoes. We were worn out from picking all day and had not eaten since breakfast. There were the added aggravations you would expect on the most humid evening of summer: Two parking tickets. A maître d’ who blocked my passage when I tried to sneak through the dining room. (Restaurants had yet to discover how a reputation for seasonal purity might be clinched by having a filthy farmer waltz 50 pounds of just-picked tomatoes between crowded tables and into the kitchen.)
On the way uptown with the final delivery, we got snagged in gridlocked traffic, and I felt an urge to pull a Jackson Pollock with my remaining tomatoes, to yank the stems out like hand-grenade pins and pulp the van wedged in front of me.
“I will never grow tomatoes again,” I announced. “Never again!”
When we made it to the last drop-off, at Restaurant Daniel, Daniel Boulud himself came into the prep kitchen and, looking us over as he tasted a cherry tomato, promptly said, “Let me give you something to eat.”
“A quick bite to eat sounds great,” I responded, thinking of tomatoes waiting to be picked at dawn.
“Here, there is no such thing as a quick bite to eat,” Daniel explained as a table was set up in the kitchen for us. We must have been the most bedraggled, bordering-on-homeless specimens on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and here was a great chef offering us a coveted seat.
My farmer’s appetite rendered me callous to the task of committing to memory the courses served to us that evening. There were seven in all, and a wine paired with each one. And the bread! I mopped up every drop of every sauce until every plate reflected my week’s growth of whiskers.
I do remember a clear, lemon-tinted soup made from the freshly squeezed juices of Taxi tomatoes. At the bottom of the bowl, a tiny wild Mexican tomato glimmered like a fathomless ruby.
Hey! Those were my tomatoes!
Never again? I say that every October. And every March, I drag out the Dumpster-inspired germination rack that moved to Pennsylvania with me. For 12 years, I’ve made a living from tomatoes. It’s not a bad life. I still do not own a farm, but I have my own tractor.
And that landlord who gave my tomatoes the boot? He works for me.