One squishy tomato season

In the backyard patch (it's actually nearer the side of the yard), the tomatoes remain - as September dawns - resolutely hard and green, except for the ones that have turned pouchy, or split, or developed ulcerous, oozing sores.

It has been a particularly rough season for tomatoes. For the most part. Too much June rain. An early appearance of late blight, the same one that brought us the Irish potato famine.

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From the book jacket

But for this patch, in this backyard, it has been pretty much business as usual. In good years, the modest harvest - numbering under a couple of dozen - comes precisely at vacation time, our labors unrequited and left to rot.

In bad years, well, most of them have been, lately. The black walnut on the other side of the yard has spawned a bumper crop of squirrels. (When they finish gnawing a tomato, they resharpen their teeth on the trash-can lids.)

And the tall, leafy zelkova we planted for shade? It has done its job in spades: It now casts a good four-fifths of the garden in funereal shadow.

At a recent heirloom tomato festival at Terrain, the garden center in Glen Mills, similar tales of woe were exchanged - sagas of how rain and spores collaborated to ruin harvests.

Adding certain irony to the injury was this wrinkle: Armchair gardeners heeding the trumpet call from the White House to plant patches of their own unwittingly abetted the spread of blight by buying record numbers of infected seedlings from big-box stores.

The Victory Garden as terrorist training camp!

At the Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market, the usual midsummer tsunami from local fields just didn't materialize. Instead of having to turn farmers away, the stand got barely enough heritage tomatoes to stock the shelves.

I called grower Tim Stark up in Berks County - he farms 58 sweet acres between Lobachsville and New Jerusalem - to see how his season had been going.

Stark is alternately a "celebrity farmer" or "tomato guru," depending on the review of his charmingly intimate new book, Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer (Broadway Books, $14 paperback).

Well, he said, it has been an oddly mixed bag. On the one hand, his crews picked more tomatoes (he has 100 varieties, and planted five extra acres this year) than in any August in the 15 years he has been growing; that would be six, seven, up to 10 tons a week.

On the other hand, since he'd just bought this particular spread a year ago - he'd been farming leased land closer to Hamburg, Berks County, before that - he couldn't risk losing his crop. That meant a retreat to spraying, something he'd largely avoided until now. (He's not certified organic, but hews closely to organic practices.)

The good news from the bountiful field? He was able to lower prices at his Greenmarket farmstand in New York's Union Square: For selected heirlooms - currently Cherokee Purples, Green Giants, Brandywines, Green Zebras, and such - he'd been getting up to $3.50 a pound; the prices have been knocked down 5 and 10 percent.

So even as his high-end restaurant trade slipped as the recession bit deeper, sales "off the front of the table," as he calls the retail end, took up the slack: "Maybe people couldn't go out to eat," he said. "But they could make an heirloom tomato salad at home."

The bad news? Despite advantage of farming a south-facing hillside, well drained and swept by gentle breezes, he was fretful that he might not be able to hold off the vine-killing late blight much longer.

Already, his rows of unripe tomatoes have been exhibiting the telltale bruises of the blight's infestation.

So September, which typically offers up one more month of tomatoes, is dawning rather bleakly for him as well. He's not sure he has more than a week or so before the latest crop succumbs.

For Tim Stark, it's hard not to take personally: On this 58-acre tomato farm overlooking the Oley Valley, he writes, he's still "dancing with the same devil" that drove his ancestors out of County Tipperary 160 years ago.

 


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.