FoodPaths - July, 2012
Heirloom Tomatoes: True Indulgence
Mark & Teresa Haberger, Big Ranch Farms, Napa, CA.

Mark HabergerThere is nothing on the food spectrum that surpasses a vine ripe summer tomato, except perhaps a vine ripe seasonal heirloom tomato.

When seasonal heirlooms begin to appear, the passion of tomato aficionados reach a crescendo; tomato overload is not possible. BLT’s, fresh tomato pasta, Caprese salad, tomato tarts, tomato pies.  We simply cannot get enough of them.

There is a reason the French call them pommes d’amour, “love apples.”

Mark and Teresa Haberger, heirloom tomato growers, own and operate Big Ranch Farms, 16 acres of a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, flowers and vineyards, located in the Oak Knoll Wine Appellation of the Napa Valley, talk tomato worship of this obsessive fruit.  

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Mark, known informally as “the tomato guy,” started his business in 1994 to grow and sell the best heirloom tomatoes, just as the culinary world was beginning to demand seasonal products, grown and sourced locally. He is largely recognized as one of the early leaders in the development of “California Cuisine” through his work with Napa-based chefs in developing the region’s culinary style. He has since expanded into a cornucopia of other foods, but tomatoes drive his culinary juices.

Hear the words “Napa Valley” and most of us conjure up a fantasy of wine, wealth, and romance.  But the Napa Valley has a secret – the terroir that produces great winegrapes also produces great tomatoes.

John Clews winemaker looking at grapesAt Big Ranch Farms, visitors are often surprised that Mark and Teresa’s land is also home to a vineyard where 12 acres of winegrapes are grown and sold to Clos Du Val. Winemaker John Clews stops by to see his Cabernet Sauvignon beauties, but Mark is clearly the grower. This is the Napa Valley. It should not be a surprise to find vineyards in unexpected places.

“Mark is a very good farmer,” Clews said. “We had our first harvest in 2002 and have been buying his grapes for our wines since then. We found early on that the soil on this site is really fertile. The location is close to the river, and the wines have an intense flavor, filled with tannins. The result is surprisingly wonderful.”

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Behind the auctions, the mile after mile of wineries and tasting rooms, the Napa Valley is a small community, rooted in agriculture and largely devoted to the monoculture of grapegrowing. But around the time Mark was developing his tomato expertise, a proliferation of chefs were migrating to the valley, starting restaurants, and seeking local food sources. A cottage industry of growers emerged, largely focused on selling wholesale to restaurants and winery chefs.

Somewhere along the way, Napa exploded into “Food Central” and a market surfaced, integrating parcels of expensive Napa land dedicated to the production of winegrapes, with a triangulation of wineries, chefs and farmers producing local, seasonal food. Today, farmer’s markets and farm stands dot the Napa Valley landscape. On market days, local chefs stand side-by-side with visitors and locals at a multitude of farmer’s markets and farm stands to participate in the best “other experience” that Napa land can deliver.

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“There are few places where you will you find the diversity and quality of food and wine in an area this size as close to a number of major population centers,” commented Mark. “When I started, no one asked about organic or sustainable processes. We were just growing tomatoes in black gold, the best compost we could make, with a goal of producing the best.

“We got to know the early chefs, worked with them to develop and grow the best product we could produce, and then scrambled to hire enough help to keep ahead of the market demand.  We continue to work with some our original chefs – Scott Warner, Cindy Pawlcyn, Michael Galyan, Greg Cole … And, we have a great team – two full-time, six to eight in the fields and market stands. We know our customers – professionals and locals from the community -- and grow food that is served both on restaurant menus and at family tables.”

Mark didn’t grow up on a farm. Neither did Teresa, who previously spent 15 years as Vice President, Operations, Wilson Daniels, one of the wine industry’s most prestigious sales and marketing companies.

The son of Napa’s first County Administrator, Al Haberger, Mark may have been influenced by his father’s instrumental role in the passage of the county’s initial Ag Preserve legislative mandate. With passage of the ordinance 40 years ago, Napa County land dedicated to agriculture was protected. The ordinance has survived many challenges since then and marked the beginning of the community’s environmental awareness.

Mark looked back at the late 1960’s when the wine industry as we know it, was taking root.  “We sold Christmas trees,” he said. “We all worked together and sold together. We had ‘Choose and Cut’ fields. The winemakers – Mondavi, Heitz, the early pioneers – bought from us.”

After a few years of selling real estate, planting vineyards and generally being a “jack of all trades” as Mark describes himself, he found his passion -- heirloom tomatoes. He currently grows 27 varieties.

Mark Haberger

For Mark and Teresa, seeding begins early, from early January into mid-February. Starting with a cold frame – a greenhouse without temperature controls – seeds in individual containers are placed on large tables over radiant heat coils mounted on metal slabs. The temperature averages 80 degrees to start the growth. Steel pipes are fitted beneath the surface to allow for ease of movement and maximize use of space.  

Usually, the growing season begins around April 15 after the last frost, when the teeny tomato seedlings – in addition to a profusion of flowers, eggplants, zucchini, basil, peppers, kale, chard, and others --  are ready to be transferred to the fields outside. Until that point, Mark hovers like an expectant father over the sprouts. “If we get a freeze and the plants are in the ground, we lose everything,” he said.

Mark Haberger

“There’s a steep curve in learning to grow things correctly,” Mark explained. “Not every seed actually matures. That’s why we plant thousands. Growing is only the beginning. You have to find a market, and then figure out how to sell.”

He admits that the vast interest among the public in food in recent years and the expansion of cooking shows have encouraged widespread interest in local, seasonal food, and particular interest in heirloom tomatoes. Why? Heirlooms taste like real tomatoes. Native to South America, and spread around the world during the16th century Spanish colonization of the Americas, the tomato is technically a fruit, oddly in the same family as tobacco and the toxic, deadly nightshade.  Up until the 1940’s tomatoes were “heirlooms.”

Hybrids, the tomatoes still most commonly available in grocery stores and seed catalogues today, were initially hybridized in the 1940’s (not genetically modified) for a particular purpose, for instance, shipping, distribution, and heavier production – but not for taste.

The heirloom revival began in the 1980’s through the efforts of many growers and researchers to restore varieties of heirloom seeds that produce plants yielding THE TASTE OF A REAL TOMATO.

“Heirlooms are bringing us back to the way tomatoes should be,” Mark said. “One of the world’s most nutritious foods through its rich source of lycopene, in addition to its antioxidant activity, tomatoes have long been thought to play a role in disease prevention. The truer the tomato, the more likely the health benefits.”

A cautionary word from this skilled grower: Heirloom tomatoes are tougher to grow than hybrids. Prone to disease, (as opposed to cultivated hybrids that are disease resistant) and pests, heirlooms also have a lower yield. They come in strange shapes, colors and sizes. Their flavors differ from variety to variety, but every one of them TASTES LIKE A REAL TOMATO.

For the home gardener, he suggests a mix from cherry tomatoes (red, yellow, orange) to Early Girls to Lemon Boys to Beefsteaks, with a mix of Cherokees and Brandywines thrown in.

“One plant is not going to do it,” Mark said firmly. This is a farmer that gets his hands dirty. Pay attention, readers and you will have Mark Haberger’s “Tip Sheet for Top Tomatoes.”

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Big Ranch Farms“You can begin your education by getting to know the tomato growers at your local farmer’s market,” Mark told us. “You want to connect with the person who grows your food. Talk to them, ask questions. Soon you will acquire enough knowledge to plant your own.

“If someone has been at a farmer’s market for a long time, he or she is likely to be a good vendor. It’s a bad sign if everything at a table or a stand is constant in size. You want to look for diversity in the food being sold. That usually means it is grown by a local farmer. If you visit a farm stand that professes to be selling its own product, make sure you can see the fields from the display stand. If you cannot see what you are buying, it may be coming from somewhere else.”

“In the end, it is great fun to grow your own food. There is nothing like the deep–seated satisfaction of putting a seed in the ground and months later seeing it on your table. Heirlooms are like difficult children. They take time and patience, but are worth all the love you give and all the love you get.”