Tim Stark founded Eckerton Hill Farm in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania, 17 years ago. The farm began on a two-acre spread his mother lovingly referred to as “the magical garden.” He now manages 58 acres over three different locations, producing 150 different varieties of plants and 35,000 pounds of tomatoes alone. Tim never imagined being at the forefront of the heirloom movement. In 2008, during what he refers to as a “mid-farm crisis,” Tim published Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer 12 years into working his own farm. It tells the story of his journey back to the farm.
Bret Csencsitz: What started the farm journey for you?
Tim Stark: I was really a gardener, and in some ways that’s still how I farm, like a gardener. A lot of people come to the farm and they’re like, Gosh, this looks like a huge garden. They see us working out there, people are hand weeding and hoeing. At the peak of the season, 20 people will be out there in the garden; and what drew me to gardening was growing interesting varieties, heirloom varietals. When the garden turned into a farm, I did the same on a bigger scale.
BC: Did it scale up easily?
TS: Well, at first it was really hard. The first year I had all these varieties of tomatoes and eggplant, and there weren’t enough people to pick everything. There weren’t enough baskets. We didn’t have enough people to organize. I learned, maybe two years into it, how to organize it in such a way that you can grow, present, and sell it.
Ironically, in the beginning, we couldn’t sell the stuff locally. The tomatoes looked strange, and the local markets wouldn’t buy them, so it all went to New York. Now, we can sell out locally.
BC: They certainly made an impression on New York chefs. it was all about the taste of these “new” tomatoes. And now the heirloom movement has spread to more and more fruits and vegetables. What makes heirlooms different?
TS: Heirlooms are desirable varieties— whether better tasting or interesting looking—that would have been lost without someone having saved the seeds. But there are some great hybrids, too, like orange cauliflowers and romanesco broccoli, which are so interesting looking. The tables have been turned in some respects; now the hybridizers are saying that people want funky-looking things. At Eckerton, we grow plenty of hybrids as well as heirlooms.
BC: Hybrids and heirlooms in harmony.
TS: Exactly, but it’s not only about the variety; it’s also about the farming. The soil, the weather, irrigation—I use composting and crop rotation with a variety of cover crops when the fields are not planted, and we only plant tomatoes every seven years on any given patch of land. That’s why our tomatoes, heirlooms, and hybrids are so good. Yes, the variety is part of it, but it’s also the soil.
BC: Which reminds me of a term we hear in describing wines: the terroir, which is about how the place a wine is from affects the quality and taste, as much or more than the variety of grape.
TS: It is the same principle. For example, we don’t just spray (the crops) every time we see a little spot on the leaves.
And we irrigate sparingly, so the plants have to struggle. Just like grapes, we plant on southern-facing hillsides that drain really well.
BC: So like the grape, the struggle helps to produce a better-tasting tomato, along with the variety, heirloom, or otherwise. And taste, for us, is what it is all
TS: Absolutely. And even with the grocery stores getting into the heirloom game, i think my tomatoes are better tasting. if you’re buying at the greenmarket or at a local farmers market, that is where you find the best-tasting
BC: With farmers’ markets proliferating rapidly around the country and more and more farms selling direct to the consumer, it seems more people are fascinated
with farming itself, particularly younger people.
TS: Definitely more people are interested in farming and small farms. I’ve had a lot of people who started working for me in their twenties and now have their own farms, which is a great development. It’s especially interesting when you consider the fight over the word “sustainability.” It’s between small farmers who say, “Hey, we’re not putting chemicals in the ground; it’s unsustainable to farm that way” and then the Monsantos of the world, who say, “Well we can’t feed the world unless we use all these chemicals. That’s unsustainable.”
BC: That is the debate.
TS: I have people telling me: “This is nice, Tim. You can feed all these rich people in New York City, but you can’t feed the world.” Bullshit—we’re not that expensive. I do think we (small farmers) can feed the world. If you get down to it, the most sustainable way to feed your people is to have local food production. That’s sustainability: small farms using innovative farming all year-round, such as growing winter crops and using greenhouses. I believe it. I’m doing it.