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Heirloom tomatoes: Everything old is new again
In a long, tent-like greenhouse, Sunny Valley's heirloom tomato and pepper plants are spilling over with fruit ready to be picked and sold.
Their operation is the perfect blend of down-home gardening and high-tech organic farming. A walk through the greenhouse makes it evident that exciting things are happening down on the farm.
Sunny Valley has been a family-run operation for decades, ever since Grandpa Crisantes traveled from Greece to America to begin a new life. His sons all went into the farming business, with each son choosing a different specialty area of farming.
Miguel Crisantes, one of his sons, became interested in organic farming 30 years ago at a time when commercial organic gardening had barely begun. In fact, he was No. 90 on the original list of farmers certified as “organic.” Crisantes began his Sunny Valley farm operation with the purpose of using sustainability farming to maintain the richness of the soil, to grow heirloom crops for their wonderful taste and to use organic farming practices which eliminate the use of harmful pesticides.
Miguel's son, Hector, is the third generation to be involved in the family business and is an integral part of their Yuma operation.
“I am in charge of the greenhouse, along with finding new markets nationwide for our produce. Our goal is to grow the best-tasting tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers using purely organic methods,” Hector said.
At present, Sunny Valley produce is sold to commercial operations such as Trader Joe's, Ralph's and Whole Foods.
“We will provide our local customers with the same great-tasting tomatoes and peppers that we sell to our retail customers,” Hector said.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of organic farms in the U.S., and organic produce has become a prized product for consumers to purchase. Why the comeback of generations-old varieties? Consumers want more choices, higher flavor and pesticide-free produce. They want a tomato with personality and a rich history, one that will make their mouth water just thinking about it. Consumers want to reconnect with past generations of gardeners and enjoy the same flavorful produce grown by their grandparents and great-grandparents.
“We are experimenting with more than 14 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Cherokee Purple, Chocolate Cherry, Gold Cherry, Red Brandy Wine, Faborita Red Cherry and Japanese Black Truffle are just a few of the varieties we are growing this year. We will select those varieties which taste the best and replant them next year, along with testing other varieties.”
Heirloom varieties must be at least 50 years old. Some heirloom tomatoes have unusual shapes and colors, while others may have imperfections on their outer skins. How they look does not affect their taste, and hybridized varieties can't compete with the wonderful flavor of heirlooms.
Knowing what to do and how to do it has taken the Crisantes family decades of farming to master. Trial and error is the best teacher; and over the years, they have learned what works by experimenting with different varieties of heirloom plants and various methods of organic farming. Growing produce from seed to the consumer's table is not an easy task, but one the Crisantes family has a passion for.
“By growing plants in the controlled environment of our greenhouse, we are able to eliminate most of the pests and temperature and weather problems that would make growing tomatoes and peppers outdoors very difficult. On sunny days, we open the greenhouse roof and let in sunlight. If a heavy rainstorm, high winds or frost is predicted, we close the greenhouse to the elements and protect our plants. The extra rain and frosts this winter would have been devastating if we hadn't had the greenhouse.”
When asked how pollination was achieved in a greenhouse setting, Mercedes, Hector's wife, explained.
“We use a type of bumble bee that is more docile than standard honey bees. They have a lifespan of about 14 weeks and are busy pollinators during that time. When one set of hives is done, we replace them with new hives.”
As we were talking, a bumble bee lit on my gown, curious to see who had come to visit. It was not aggressive and flew away when I brushed it off. I was surprised at its small size because I had pictured it to be like a traditional bumble bee with a large, yellow and black-striped body. This one resembled a larger version of a honey bee and had no colorful stripes.
“We use a tiny wasp as part of our insect control. The wasps lay eggs on flying pests, and the eggs turn into larvae which eat the bugs. No pesticides are used. This type of pest control is called ‘integrated pest management' and has proven successful. We also have hanging yellow bug traps as another means of controlling flying insects,” Mercedes said.
Besides pest management, composting and soil improvement are high on their list of priorities.
“We compost the leaves and culled fruit from the greenhouse and add it back into the greenhouse soil. Our goal is to enrich the soil each year, giving as much nutrients as possible to our plants,” Hector said.
When we walked past the irrigation pumps and holding pond, a faint odor of fish reminded me of the ocean.
“Seaweed and fish emulsion are used in our drip irrigation system as good sources of natural nutrients for our plants. No artificial fertilizers are used. Enriching our soil is a No. 1 priority because the healthier the soil, the better our plants will grow and the more flavorful our produce will be,” Hector explained.
Heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they produce more than one crop of fruit.
“With the help of our greenhouse environment, we plan to harvest tomatoes and peppers from February through April, or until the weather becomes too hot for the plants to survive,” Hector said.
For more information, go to SunnyValleyOrganics.com or call 1-520-281-2213.
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.