Tomatoes Bring Sales, Community to Eckerton Hill Farm

10/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

LOBACHSVILLE, Pa. — Farmer and author Tim Stark wrote a book in 2008 called “Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer,” which tells the story of his farm and its unique niche selling heirloom tomatoes from the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania.
Initially, Stark knew how to garden, but had little knowledge of farming.
It all began when he decided to grow tomato seedlings at his home in urban Brooklyn, N.Y., while he was doing consulting work in the city. He gradually grew out of space there for his multiplying tomato plants and moved back home to Berks County, Pa., to delve into tomato farming.
His strong curiosity about the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes is what started him specializing in this one crop. Today, he raises more than 100 different heirloom varieties.
Stark first farmed on land on the other side of the county before buying his current property’s 58 acres in Lobachsville, Rockland Township, Berks County, Pa.
He paid specific attention to the lay of the land before he purchased the acreage — it had southern-facing hillsides and good breezes, and these were important factors to him.
He has about 10 acres in vegetables and at least 25 in hay. About 80 percent of what he grows is his unique supply of tomatoes, with about 8,000 plants total.
In the warm seasons, Stark employees about 20 mostly full-time people and six or seven during the rest of the year.
Some of his farming is also done on leased land in Virginville, Berks County, Pa., and he is looking into using land soon in Oley Township, Berks County, Pa., as well.
Artichokes, onions, garlic, okra, cucumbers, zucchini, greens, raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, broccoli, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins, watermelon, carrots, kale and peppers are some of the other fruits and vegetables he raises.
“We went to New York City in the mid-1990s because we couldn’t sell heirloom tomatoes locally back then,” Stark said. Today, he is finally seeing a growing interest in heirloom plants in his own community, but the city consistently provides a strong clientele for his farm.
“About 75 percent of the tomatoes get sold right off of the truck to restaurants,” Stark said about the out-of-state markets he attends.
He said his heirloom tomatoes are in the most extreme demand at Union Square Greenmarket, a four-day-a-week farmers market located in downtown Manhattan. At the farm, Stark said Mondays are reserved for picking and Tuesdays are set aside for packing.
Stark noted that his farm’s approach to packaging helps lure the senses of customers who buy from him in the city. In the past, he and his employees packaged all sizes separately, but that often left some larger tomatoes in cartons sitting alone after the market.
So now they mingle in a few slightly larger tomatoes with the smaller ones to mix it up a little, and customers like to buy them as is.
His tomatoes even were featured on the cover of Gourmet Magazine in 1998.
At the farm’s peak growing and selling season, Stark said his farm sees 700 to 800 flats filled and purchased per week.
He also sells a lot of unusual and heirloom seasoning peppers, ones that aren’t familiar to his local customers. But demand for them grew because of a crowd of West Indian women who found his produce and eagerly use the peppers in their cooking. Stark said they carry flavor without the expected heat of many peppers.
“I rotate tomatoes every three years,” Stark said about his fields. “Then I put that land in hay, sometimes clover ... but a lot of the hay already has clover in it. I don’t like rotating vegetables with vegetables — it’s hay and clover that build up the soil.”
Stark admitted that while he was not happy about it, he resorted to spraying fungicides minimally in recent years as a way to protect his crops from impending blight. During one year on the new land when he didn’t spray, he said his employees were upset that nothing was done to prevent the crops from deteriorating.
So, in three of the five years he’s been farming the property he owns, he has sprayed fungicides.
“We don’t go around saying we’re organic, but we say that we don’t spray,” Stark said.
When he had to make the difficult decision to spray, customers understandingly told him, “Do what you’ve got to do.”
Stark recently had a bake oven installed on the farm. Every Friday, homemade pizza is baked for a dinner that his employees share together as the weekend begins.
And there are movie nights at the farm, with wood-fired pizza from the bake oven — something Stark and his staff are bringing to their community. The last one was scheduled for Friday at 5:30 p.m., with the agricultural documentary film, “Watermelon Magic,” on the schedule.
“We want people to come to the farm and to get involved,” Stark said about the goal of connecting people with the land where their food is grown.
In the autumn, he and his employees also hold a festive day of hay rides and pumpkin-picking for kids.
A very expensive event that Stark said loses money, but that is looked forward to by many of his customers, is Dinner in the Dell, a five-course dinner featuring chef Dave Pasternack’s culinary efforts using produce straight from the farm. The cost is $200 per person.
Part of the proceeds from the Dinner in the Dell, which took place on Sept. 28, benefited the Berks County Historic Preservation Trust.
His land is also home to a few cows, goats and pigs.
Stark said that his tomatoes are what pay the mortgage, so extreme rains and hailstorms are some of his worst stresses, given that tomatoes can’t handle such harsh precipitation.
And it wasn’t until he bought his new farmland that he hired an accountant to help with the financials and tax details. They had become more complicated due to factors such as depreciation and other less-than-simple monetary aspects in operating the business.
“But if everything was predictable, I don’t think I’d like it as much,” Stark reflected about his farm business.

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