In the worst summer in 30 years to grow tomatoes, we didn’t turn up a 10.0 Brix tomato in our 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge but we did land an 8.2 Brix German Red Strawberry tomato at Liz Eggers and Mike Hampel’s Grouse Mountain Farm stall at the University District Farmers Market. River Farm (U-District Market) and Summer Run Farm (Ballard Market) had the second and third highest Brix with a 7.2 Brandywine and a 7.0 German Striped. Tomato Challenge tomatoes were to be at least 2.5″ in diameter and commercially grown.
Looking back it seems destiny controlled the fate of the 8.2 Brix tomato that captured the $100 prize for the highest Brix tomato in our 10.0 Brix Tomato Challenge. Kevin Davis has also invited the couple in for dinner at Blueacre Seafood Restaurant. It was a stunning German Red Strawberry variety grown for the first time this year by Liz and Mike. (I mistakenly identified it as a Brandywine). I was lucky to find it. I came to the market late that day. This tomato was one of the last ones unsold. It caught my eye even before I got to the stall.
When I called Liz at her and Mike’s farm in Chelan to tell her they had won $100 for the highest Brix tomato, she said, “I’m half-shocked since I and many other growers considered this year a less than optimum year for tomatoes. I didn’t even plan to submit a tomato to the challenge, you just happened by and picked up that tomato. Lots of people looked at it, but were scared away by the size!”
Greg Atkinson happened by. It didn’t scare him. “Now that is a tomato!” Greg said with a knowing grin.
When most tomatoes this summer were coming in around 5, including some from the Grouse Mountain table, an 8.2 Brix tomato was quite a score.
When a tomato reaches 8.0 Brix you notice distinct density. With sugar being heavier than water, an 8.0 Brix tomato is heavier in the hand and decidedly firmer. They look more confident. They announce themselves. On a good year, you can often spot them on a table.
I wait until I get home to measure tomatoes I have gathered that day at the different markets. I try to photograph particularly beautiful tomatoes and steps in the process. To get a Brix measurement I need a drop of juice on the refractive lens. After measuring the sugars, the tomatoes gathered that day get sauced.
Grouse Mountain Farm
I asked Liz to tell me about that tomato, their farm and to send a few photos. Liz says the German Red Strawberry is an indeterminate variety that needs staking. “It has wispy foliage and is a shy bearer for me. I’m guessing 80-85 days to maturity, although it is hard to tell this year. I grew it from seeds a friend gave me a few years ago.
“We started farming in 1988 when we moved to our land at 25-Mile Creek on Lake Chelan. We cleared some land of brush to put in a small planting of fruit trees and a small garden. The key word here is small. We only farm two acres now and do all of the work ourselves. We started with things we were interested in, unusual fruits that were hard to find, heirloom varieties of apples and pears, colorful heirloom tomatoes, etc.
When we started getting an abundance of produce one year (1994) we attended the Tilth Harvest Festival and sold the surplus. This was before the Neighborhood Farmers Market Association started. When we realized the interest in our produce we decided to expand as much as we could, and still be able to do all the work ourselves. We have been selling at the University District Farmers Market since 1995. Although we have always used organic practices, we became certified organic in 1996. We love direct marketing and have built many friendships with our customers over the years.
As far as cultural practices with tomatoes, I don’t think I do anything that special. I start all my own seeds, put the plants in a small unheated hoop house (I have to bring them in at night until frost threat is over) and then plant them out about mid-May. As you can see in the photos, I trellis them up some fencing at a fairly close spacing 1 1/2′ apart, rows about 3′ apart. I don’t prune them. We spray them a couple of times in early growth period with some fish fertilizer and kelp. Try to keep them watered and weeded. That’s about it. Then it is – wait until they ripen and enjoy!!”
I have purchased 10.0 Brix tomatoes from Liz and Mike in the past but it was not to be this year.
What did we learn?
I have used variations of this survey method to find and learn about the best strawberries, peaches and even the best salmon and oysters. Taste and compare, taste and compare, taste and compare. In the case of fruits and vegetables, it becomes measure, taste and compare. It remains to figure out what was learned in the worst tomato growing summer in decades.
The amount of sunlight, soil temperature, air temperature, air flow (CO2 required for photosynthesis), plant spacing, leaf surface, and a multitude of other factors can affect the success of a tomato plant as measured by a refractometer.
Low Brix was something that all Northwest tomatoes shared this year whoever the grower, whatever the variety, whatever the method which in this particular year, would lead me to suspect not enough sunlight for extended periods of time throughout the region probably had something to do with it.
Sunlight is required for photosynthesis. Different plants have different solar energy requirements. Tomato plants obviously did not receive their normal summer allotment this year. That is my conjecture. This winter I’m going to look at local weather history looking especially at cloud cover through the years to see what I can learn vis-a-vis tomato happiness.
I’ve been in touch with a few tomato growers in other parts of the country. I’m hoping to collect tomato Brix readings from them next year so we can compare. Farmers are like fishermen, eternal optimists. Lets put this season behind us and get ready for a tomato glory year.