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The life of a tomato 

When it's locally grown, it not only tastes better, it supports the lives of many others in the community.

Joan Holeman holds her hand out and displays the seeds she has saved from last year. She and her husband, Charles, have been growing German Johnson tomatoes on this land for 15 years. Charles' family has been farming on this land on and off for well over 100 years. Late in the winter, Joan sows the seeds, and another crop of tomatoes is born on the Holeman farm.

Every living thing has a life story, and the life story of a tomato can be very different depending on where they are grown and for what purpose. The biggest differences between a tomato grown on the Holeman farm and a tomato grown on a much larger, corporately owned farm are the economic beneficiaries of that tomato's life and the quality of the nutrition and taste it provides the consumer. While it is still debatable how much the chemicals and hormones used in industrial farming affect the consumer, there is no doubt that the product is fundamentally different from a naturally grown product. The rules and regulations regarding what you have to do to call your produce organic are too strict and complex for the Holemans, as they are for many of the area's small farmers. But the Holemans do their best to produce the most natural products they can manage. This is the life story of one of those products.

Charles and Joan grew up within a mile of each other on this farmland in Person County between Rougemont and Roxboro. They started their first day of school together in the same school. They are old-fashioned Southerners--quiet, humble, polite to a fault and grateful for the gifts they have. The Holemans consider themselves lucky that they live in an area of the South with so many good farmers' markets and a population that is willing to support those markets.

The Holemans grow a variety of tomatoes, including red greenhouse tomatoes and a variety of heirlooms. The demand for heirloom tomatoes has grown rapidly in the past few years, especially with local chefs. Heirlooms are not great producing plants, they don't keep or travel well, and they tend to crack and bruise easily, but they are in demand at the markets. German Johnsons in particular bring people to the Holemans' stand at the farmers' markets.

The tomatoes begin their lives as seedlings in one of eight greenhouses on the Holeman property. In April, they are moved outside but kept in flats under cover, to ease the small plants into the elements. At this time of year, the Holemans don't get a lot of sleep; their strawberry plants are in the ground and their tomatoes are outside, but if the temperature drops too much, as it did frequently this year, Charles is out in the fields trying to protect his plants.

The Holeman farm, Flat River Nursery, is on Holeman Ashley Road, which is named after one of Charles' ancestors. The story goes that the land was given as a land grant to a Charles Holeman by a king of England in the 1700s. The piece of land was much bigger then--Charles has heard that land grants in that time were up to 10,000 acres--but over the years the land has been divided up, and now Charles and Joan own 40 acres. Charles estimates that at least five generations of Holemans have farmed either on this very land or land that was part of the original farm. When he was growing up, this land was used for growing tobacco. Later, his family leased the land to other farmers. In 1978, Joan and Charles re-built the 1909 farmhouse that had been standing empty on the land, and soon after that they began farming the land themselves. Now they grow greens, peppers, eggplants, at least 20 varieties of herbs, 40 different kinds of flowers, ferns, cucumbers, squash, cabbage, pick-your-own strawberries and at least 10 to 20 varieties of tomatoes.

This year's German Johnson crop went in the ground a little late because of the April frosts. They were planted on the 16th of April and were blooming by the first of May. By the 10th of May they were tied up, and re-tied every week until they reached the top of the stakes. Charles sprayed them with an organic pesticide--a naturally occurring bacteria that is toxic to worms but not humans or other animals--about five times between planting and the end of picking. The first tomatoes were picked on the sixth of July, and they were being sold at the markets that week. From then until the end of picking in mid-August, there was fruit to be had at least three times a week.

The Holemans estimate that they make three-quarters of their income from selling at farmers' markets. They sell twice a week at the Durham market, twice a week at the Carrboro market, and also at the Hillsborough and Fearrington Village markets. The other 25 percent of their income comes from selling flowers and pick-your-own strawberries to people who come to the farm. With the tobacco buyout and the rise of agribusiness, finding a way to sell directly to the consumer is the only way a small farm like theirs is able to continue. Without the farmers' markets and the customers that support them, this rural way of life would simply not survive.

Charles used to take their tomatoes to the wholesale markets, trying to compete with much larger farms that were using very different growing techniques. The price Charles got at the wholesale markets ranged between $7 and $25 for a 25-pound box of tomatoes, depending on the time of year. "If you were to average $12 for 25 pounds for the year, you'd be doing pretty well," Charles says. "The prices I was getting trying to sell wholesale, it was just not worth going. I could not survive off that money. If we were not doing direct marketing, we could not survive out here." At the farmers' market, the Holemans charge $2.35 a pound for their German Johnsons.

Charles says that he thinks customers at the farmers' markets are the type of people who are willing to pay a little more for the high quality he produces compared to supermarket tomatoes. But the truth is, at $2.35 a pound, Charles' tomatoes are 44 cents cheaper than the vine-ripened tomatoes and more than $1 cheaper than the hothouse tomatoes at Harris Teeter. If you want to measure the value you are likely to get in terms of taste, there is no competition. Comparing one of the Holemans' regular red tomatoes to a Harris Teeter "farmers' market" vine-ripened tomato is like comparing a diamond to a rhinestone, without the fun kitsch value. When I tasted them side by side, the supermarket tomato was pale, mealy and bland. The local tomato was deep red, full of flavor, acidic, funky and engaging.

This difference in taste is something local chefs have come to appreciate. One of the places many of the Holemans' tomatoes end up is in the kitchen of the Magnolia Grill. Ben Barker, the restaurant's chef and co-owner with his wife, Karen, is a regular at the Carrboro Farmers' Market and at the Holemans' stand there. The Barkers have been shopping at the Carrboro market for around 20 years, and they value the relationships they are able to build with the farmers they come to know there.

"There is something profound about a relationship that happens over a period of time, that continues over the course of years," Barker says. The people we have come to trust at the market will tell us if their stuff is not good enough that week. It goes way beyond the purely mercenary relationship that we have with most of our suppliers, who are faceless and nameless."

On a Saturday this August, Barker arrived and bought a box of German Johnsons to use early the following week. The tomatoes ended up being used for an appetizer dish of local tomatoes and artichoke hearts. At $9.25 for the appetizer, our tomato did double duty in supporting people in our community. By the end of its life, it had made some money for the Holemans, and it had made some money for a local restaurant, one that employs 38 people.

The life of this local tomato is very different than the life of a supermarket tomato. Apart from the differences in taste, pesticide use, as well as other farming techniques of large corporate farms, the biggest difference is in the economics. Of the $2.35 per pound that Charles Holeman charged for the tomatoes at the market, 100 percent went to the actual people who did the work of growing the fruit. If Barker had decided instead to shop at the supermarket, or from one of the wholesale produce distributors who sell to restaurants, only 10-20 percent of the dollar value he paid would go to the grower. The other 80-90 percent would go to distribution costs, transportation, packaging and marketing. The money he spent would be spread all over the country, and he wouldn't just be paying for a tomato, he'd be paying for gasoline, storage and any number of other things.

There are those of us who would like to believe that there is better karma in eating a pig that lived a happy life. But there is no doubt that instant karma is at work in the life of our community when we buy from people who work and live and grow here.

More by Besha Rodell


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