Friends Drift Inn Farm – What We Grow
“My father was a tomato farmer. There is the phrase that says he or she worked their fingers to the bone, well that was my dad. And he was a very good man.” Sidney Poitier
We Grow ‘Maters – Red, Yellow, Green, Purple and Striped
Appalachian Heirloom Tomatoes
How We Grow
Tomatoes have always been a feast or famine crop here at Friends Drift Inn Farm. We are either literally up to our eyes in bushels and bushels, or struggling to fill a tiny berry basket. There is no middle ground. Locally grown tomatoes are a precious commodity.
The majority of our tomato plants are grown by us. We source some seed and plants from commercial growers who do not sell GMO varieties. Friends Drift Inn Farm specialize in tomatoes for the restaurant trade and for the farmers market.
In February, when you are lounging around the fireplace, we are starting tomato plants. They are loved, watered and nourished until they are ready for the fields in April.
From that time, it will take another 6 weeks before the earliest tomatoes will produce. Some varieties take up to 3 months after being tucked into the fields before they yield. Tomatoes have to be covered with Gro-Guard early in the season for frost protection. They have to water evenly or harvest is spotty. As the plants grow, they need to be staked, trellised or tied up. They need to be pruned. Inevitably, a few fruit are misshapen or damaged on the vine and need to be culled weeks before the remaining fruit is ready for market.
Because there is such a high demand for our tomatoes, we often plant favorite varieties several times during the season to insure a continuous supply for our clients. That means we are starting plants at the same time we are preparing to put the first group in the fields. Spring planting season is a busy time!
And then there is the harvest. Tomatoes are easily bruised. We used to pick in bushel baskets, but now we place our tomato treasures in flat crates. Those crates are heavy and unwieldy. When we are ready to take the crop to market, the crates must be carefully loaded so as not to bruise. At market, they have to be attractively displayed. We arrive early in the morning to stand in the sun, or endure the torrential downpours that threaten to collapse our farmers market tent.
In 2015, we planted over 1000 tomato plants and harvested a mere 5 bushel. To put that in perspective, on a low yield year our main crop tomatoes will produce a bushel per 6 plants. Too wet early on, followed by a near drought, and then a summer that saw more clouds than sunshine 2015 is a year we would like to forget. Tomato production is fraught with perils. Early blight, late blight, fungal diseases, pests, weather, and post production handling all factor into the adventure that is a grower’s life.
Tomato farming is hard work. Tomato farming is not for the faint of heart. But it is for the dreamer. At Friends Drift Inn Farm we have a field of dreams filled with tomatoes.
A Little About Tomatoes
There are two types of tomatoes. Determinate varieties, which set fruit all at once, are the “one and done.” These are the tomatoes grown chiefly for canning; the large flush of fruit giving abundance all at once. Indeterminate varieties plod along all season, spitting out tomatoes willy-nilly. These are the tomatoes cherished for slicing, for eating out of hand in the Kentucky sunshine with the juice running down your arms is a river of flavor so sensational you just have to lick it off.
When it comes to tomatoes, we never know when to stop. There are plum tomatoes for canning sauce and dehydrating. There are saladette tomatoes, perfect for salads. (Duh!) We grow beefsteaks, giant slicers that beg for mayonnaise and bacon. We grow cherry tomatoes and currant tomatoes, little pops of flavor for salads and wonderful dehydrated. (They dry like raisins and are the cat’s meow in salads and scattered across home-made pizza)
Varieties We Like
Our favorites for market include Mister Stripy, a slicer which looks like a sunset on the vine. We grow Rutgers and Hazelfields, your standard red round ‘mater everybody has come to expect. We like Matt’s Cherry, an open pollinated variety that usually performs well. We are known for tiny Yellow Pear tomatoes, a favorite Grandma made into preserves. We have had limited success with the “Mountain” series, a non-Gmo hybrid developed in North Carolina for growing conditions in this region.
If I told you how many varieties of heirloom tomato seed I have stored, you would not believe me. But that is what makes Friends Drift Inn Tomatoes so special. It is the history. It is the anticipation. It is the mystery of what will perform up to our market standards. Each year we trial varieties; we offer these “small batch” (wink to the bourbon industry) tomatoes for our pleasure, and offer a very small amount to our preferred market clients.
Come check us out at the Pikeville Farmers Market. You never know when we will bring in a Purple Dog Creek or a Big Sandy Old Country. The tomatoes we grow; they tell our story and there is so much more to come!
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