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Heirloom Tomato Farmer Finds Beauty In The Ugly

It's peak tomato season, which means it's the busiest, sweatiest, most backbreaking time of the year for self-described "accidental tomato farmer" Tim Stark.

This week, Stark trucked 100 varieties of tomatoes from his farm in Pennsylvania to the Union Square market in Manhattan. His tomatoes are sliced and diced and stacked on dinner plates of the finest restaurants in New York.

Stark tells NPR's Melissa Block that it's the ugly tomatoes — the ones that "tend to split and crack and get beaten up a lot" — that taste the best. "The uglier, the better," he says.

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Heirloom.

Stark did not imagine he would be a tomato farmer. He started out as a management consultant and would-be writer. In 1996, he started growing tomatoes on a whim, growing several thousand plants in his fourth-floor walk-up. That's when tomatoes took over his life, as he describes in his new book, Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer.

Twelve years later, he farms tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and Garden Peach on 12 acres.

Stark considers himself lucky because his first year was surprisingly smooth.

"We had an incredible crop of, say, 60 varieties of tomatoes," he says. "At that time, nobody was growing that kind of variety ... so it really caught the eye of restaurants and a lot of customers. ... I was really lucky; if we'd had a dry year like this year in that first year, because I had no irrigation, I wouldn't be here. I'd be back in Brooklyn thinking of my next scheme."

Stark enjoys walking through restaurants during peak dining time in his dirty farmer's clothes. And times have changed. In the early years, he got thrown out trying to go through the front door. But now, he says, restaurant owners like it.

"If you want to be a restaurant that counts, you got to have some filthy farmer walking in with something just picked," Stark says. "You gotta have that. That's part of the look."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's peak tomato season, which means it's the busiest, sweatiest, most back-breaking time of the year for Tim Stark, a self-described accidental tomato farmer.

Mr. TIM STARK (Author, "Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer"): One large heirloom and the Wild Max?

Unidentified Woman: No, Sweet Chelsea.

Mr. STARK: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. They're nice.

BLOCK: That's Tim Stark at the Union Square green market in Manhattan this week. He trucked in a ton and a half of tomatoes from his farm in Pennsylvania - 100 varieties, mostly non-hybrid heirloom tomatoes, all organically grown.

Mr. STARK: Two Red Beefsteaks, one Sweet Chelsea...

BLOCK: Tim Stark started out in 1996 on a whim, growing several thousand tomato plants from seed in his fourth floor walk-up in Brooklyn. Now, 12 years later, he farms 12 acres in Pennsylvania, where he grew up. And his tomatoes are sliced and diced and stacked on dinner plates of the finest restaurants in New York.

Mr. STARK: Seven - for John George(ph), seven mixed cherry.

BLOCK: A tomato farmer - it's not what Tim Stark imagined for his career. He started out as a management consultant and would-be writer until tomatoes took over his life - tomatoes with wonderful names, as he describes in this reading from his new book, "Heirloom."

Mr. STARK: Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach, Plum Lemon, Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter - I could not help noticing how these tomatoes responded to me in ways that women, bosses and literary editors never had.

BLOCK: The cover of his book shows a gorgeous assortment of tomatoes, orange and red and purple, green and striped, all blemish-free. But some of his tomatoes are as homely as they come.

Mr. STARK: Yeah, they are. They are - in fact, I guess some of the companies are marketing them as ugly tomatoes, they call them. But sometimes, it's just the uglier the better. And some of them are just incredible, how they - there's one called the Peach tomato that really prefers to look like a peach. And there's one that prefers to look like a pear. There's even some that look like bell peppers. They're really varied. It's pretty amazing.

I actually find the ugly ones - they tend to split and crack and get beaten up a lot more, and those are the ones I always eat. I always say they're the best.

BLOCK: But why do you think it's better?

Mr. STARK: Yeah, it's sort of like the - I don't know, maybe the ugly duckling story or something like that. It shows character, the cracks and the rips, the bruises. And if it's perfect, that means maybe it's been pampered too much and it doesn't have character.

BLOCK: You have a great line in your book talking about, you know, those perfect, shiny, fancy tomatoes at the supermarket, and you say, to fall for them is a bit like talking dirty on the telephone for $3.99 a minute.

Mr. STARK: Yeah, I did say that, didn't I?

BLOCK: You did.

Mr. STARK: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, you pay all this money and - they look great. They look fabulous. But it's just not the real thing.

BLOCK: How did it happen that this operation that you started sort of on a whim, in a way, you know, now you are providing tomatoes to the fanciest restaurants around New York, and everybody seems to know exactly who you are?

Mr. STARK: I always say that first year, we had an incredible crop of say, 60 varieties of tomatoes. And at that time, nobody was growing that kind of a variety. I mean, at Union Square, we sort of were - nobody had 50 - there were people who were growing Brandy Wines and Cherokee Purples, so it really caught the eye of a lot of restaurants and a lot of customers in that first year.

I was really lucky. If we had had a dry year like this year in that first year because I had no irrigation, I wouldn't be here. I probably - I'd be back in Brooklyn thinking of my next scheme.

BLOCK: You know, as your business took off and you started selling to all these fancy restaurants around New York, you describe delivering to them. And I guess there are times when you don't go in the back, you walk right through the restaurant and you're sweaty and grubby and hauling in these cartons of tomatoes.

Mr. STARK: Yeah.

BLOCK: I love picturing that.

Mr. STARK: Yeah. Well - and that was something. And that's something. And I said that, too, in the early years. Oh, they would - I got thrown out of restaurants trying to do that. You know, if I was delivering in the evening and I was picking all morning, I was probably a little rough. I was sort of, you know, look, I just want to get this delivered. I don't want to beg permission to go around the back, you know? So, I was probably just pushing in, too. But now, I'll walk right through some dining rooms during the busy time, and I think the restaurants like to have their customers seeing, you know, the farmer come through.

BLOCK: But you're saying now, people value that.

Mr. STARK: They - oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, you have to. I mean, if you want to be a, you know, if you want to be a restaurant that counts, you got to have some filthy farmer walking inside your - with something just picked, you know? You got to have that. That's part of the look, you know?

BLOCK: Well, Tim Stark, it's great talking to you, and enjoy the rest of tomato season.

Mr. STARK: Thank you.

BLOCK: Tim Stark's book is "Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer." You can read an excerpt at npr.org, where he writes about his first frenetic season in the world of tomato farming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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