Tim Stark, the tomato guy, sells thousands of heirloom tomatoes in New York City every year. | SUBMITTED
I have been totally charmed and energized by Tim Stark’s “Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer.”
I don’t say this because we are both “accidentals,” although I must admit I feel a certain kinship with the author because he was pretty unorganized about his gardening when he first got started.
The amazing thing is that Stark planted 2,000 tomato plants and hundreds of hot pepper plants on a farm in Pennsylvania where he had grown up and planned to sell them at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. He’d never done this before, and reading how he scrambled to get those 100 varieties of tomatoes and 70-odd varieties of chili grown, picked and to market those first few years is pretty funny.
There are lots of other chuckling moments in this book for those of us who garden, and I highly recommend it for winter reading.
It’s turned my head about growing heirloom tomatoes, as well as educated me about habaneros, the Amish and the Mennonites, and the difficulties and rewards of truck farming.
But what really struck a chord was Stark’s description of the changes in the New York food scene because of that farmer’s market that opened more than 30 years ago.
Greenmarket was overrun by customers on the first day it opened, and within hours, everything was gone. It was like a herd of locusts descended on them, one farmer recalled.
Soon, some of the most famous chefs in the city began dropping in to see what kind of locally grown fresh vegetables were available that week. Then new restaurants began popping up within walking distance of the Union Square Greenmarket so their staff could drop in for fresh, locally grown food for their customers.
The farmers thrived, the restaurants thrived, and New Yorkers could eat healthy food.
The Greenmarkets are a win/win, he writes. They save farmland, provide nutritious food to urbanites, fuel a culinary renaissance and restore vigor and dignity to scores of farm families.
Both Duluth and Thunder Bay already have thriving farm communities. Maybe we can do that in Cook County, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Kristin DeArruda Wharton, the coordinator of the Statewide Health Improvement (SHIP) program in Cook County, sees the possibilities.
“Currently, there are very few commercial-scale producers in Cook County,” she says. “Most of the local produce that we do see here is coming from people’s home gardens.”
But restaurants, schools and the hospital are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars outside the county to buy food every year.
“If the food was grown here, I see it as an economic opportunity for people to make a living and support their families,” harton said.
Wharton is a nurse at Sawtooth Mountain Clinic and is coordinating a new program that aims to begin doing just that. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Community Transformation grant seeks to enhance the health of Minnesota communities. In Cook County, the focus is on increasing the community’s access to healthy, locally grown food.
“The goal of the whole thing is to have more fresh, local and regionally produced foods available to all people through restaurants, schools and hospitals,” she says.
Two restaurants, for example, the Angry Trout and Lutsen Resort, have already pledged to spend 20 percent of their food budgets on local or regional products by 2020, she says. And other local institutions are considering being involved. Some schools, like Great Expectations, already have a greenhouse and gardens and they use some of their produce for school lunches, and Grand Portage is working on a farm-to-school project, she said.
But setting up commercial farms in Cook County will not be easy.
“I feel like we know what the barriers are,” Wharton said. “Access to agricultural land is tough. It’s either not available or the cost is very prohibitive for people just starting out. The county hasn’t stepped up and said this is a priority. If they decided to do that, I think there could be conversation about tax incentives for ag land or a way to pass on agricultural land to the next generation with less cost.”
There are definitely fields around the county that are currently not in production.
“Part of what we need to do is find out is who has an old farm and are they interested in leasing that land or allowing someone to use it,” Wharton said. “There are people who want to do it, but they don’t have the land.
“Another idea is to develop a county/community agricultural incubator farm like they have started near Ashland, Wis. Beginning farmers are able to lease an acre of land and get a start that way. I think that would be a real economic opportunity for the county.”
Wharton has organized a meeting between local and regional agricultural producers in Cook and Lake counties as well as Thunder Bay and the restaurants and wholesale buyers who will use their produce, in hopes to directly connect the people who are producing with the people who are buying.
It could be the start of a completely new direction for gardeners who want to just grow food for others.
This story was originally published in the Feb.-March 2013 issue of Northern Wilds. Written by Joan Farnam.