Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer

A writer turns his attention to organic gardening.

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If love grew from the ground, it might be a sun-ripened tomato. And now it is August in the Northeast, when an abundance of the succulent fruit momentarily clouds memories of beautiful – yet tasteless – imported produce.

But love, and organic tomatoes, do not ripen without patient labor and battles with anxiety. Farmer and writer Tim Stark illustrates the latter with chaotic flair in Heirloom: Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer.

Stark, who had been living in Brooklyn, N.Y., laboring as a consultant by day and struggling writer by night, happened upon an intriguing pile of garbage. The twist of water pipes and two-by-fours inspired a vision of a seed germination rack. With a little ingenuity, 3,000 tomato seedlings were soon sprouting in Stark’s brownstone garret. After convincing his urban, professional friends to transplant these seedlings onto two acres of his family’s Pennsylvania homestead for free, his farming adventure begins.

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There are standoffs over property, sputtering neighbor farmers who question his organic practices, a collection of Mennonites who piously lend a hand, and a groundhog who won’t take no for an answer. There are “tomato people,” 3 a.m. trips into New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket, renowned chefs who compete for the best greens, and a flow of regular customers as odd and unique as the tomatoes at Stark’s stall.

The chapters of “Heirloom” are really like dropping in for visits at his Eckerton Hill Farm. You just don’t know what you are going to get. Some themes are repetitive (anxiety) and other developments are left unexplained (when did the selfless girlfriend become the nagging wife?).

But wandering amid the weedy, erratic rows, it’s hard not to be endeared to Stark and his stories. There is plenty of delicious fruit where the writer shines through the farmer, such as this passage from a New York night, after a long, frustrating day delivering his wares to restaurants:

“Across the street from the Grocery, a girl was playing the violin; I could see and hear her through an open fourth-story window. One of those tricky Stravinsky pieces – jerky screaks of sound forming their own miraculous order.”

Never mind those dirt-encrusted jeans.

Kendra Nordin is a staff editor.

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