Lessons of a First Year Farmer: Tomatoes

tomatoes at the marketMy plan for this series is to go through each crop we grew, and figure out what we did right, what we did wrong, and what we can do better next year.  Tomatoes seem like the logical place to start, since we grew and sold a lot of them, and we loved eating them.

Overall, we planted about 110 row feet of tomatoes, set every 18 inches, so about 68 plants.  We purchased the seedlings from Natick Community Farm and from JoAnn Robidaux, one of our fellow New Entry Farmers who grew them at a community greenhouse in Lowell.  We grew the plants on biodegradable black plastic (biotelo) with drip irrigation under the plastic.  We staked our tomatoes with 54″ cedar stakes, set every two plants, and supported them with nylon tomato twine, basket woven.  We probably could have used slightly longer stakes, and we could have done one more pass of twine mid-season, to give extra support.  Our plants, especially, the Brandywines, grew like crazy, and eventually the top sections started to topple over, causing yield reduction.  The other solution to this would have been more aggressive pruning.

a tunnel of tomatoes

The space between our tomatoes and tomatillos made for a tunnel of green (we should have planted them farther apart).

We had very little pest pressure on the tomatoes –I think we found and killed just one tomato hornworm caterpillar.  We did have to worry about late blight, so we chose to spray copper sulfate as an anti-fungal agent (an organic/OMRI approved formulation).  I hate spraying copper–it’s irritating to the skin and nose and smells bad and tends to clog up the backpack sprayer.  But we did manage to avoid significant problems with late blight (despite a scare where I rushed off a sample to the state testing lab).  At the height of the season, we were spraying every 7-10 days.

The section of our field where we grew tomatoes got some slight shade, both in the morning and evening.  In the mid-season, this wasn’t a problem, though it did cause our first tomatoes to come in a little late, and shortened our season, by perhaps 1-2 weeks.  Next season, I’ll move them to a sunnier spot in the field.

This season, we grew three different kinds of tomatoes (all from organic suppliers):  hybrid slicers, heirloom slicers, and paste tomatoes (both heirloom and hybrid).

farm stand slicers

Hybrid Slicers

Hybrid Slicers

For the hybrid slicers, we just had one variety, Celebrity.  We only had 6 plants and they produced 79 pounds of tomatoes (yield of 13.2 lbs/plant).  Not bad. They were a classic, red round tomato with a straightforward tomato flavor.  Our customers liked them.  I think they’re a little less intimidating than some of the heirloom tomatoes–they look like a tomato, they’re a manageable size, and you know what to do with it.  We almost always sold out of what we picked.  Next year, I plan to grow a lot more hybrid slicers.

Our first sale of slicers (more than just one tomato) was August 9 and the last was on October 30.  (I’m going to put all of this in a table below.)

plum tomatoes

a big bin of plum tomatoes

Paste/Plum Tomatoes

For paste/sauce tomatoes, we grew Grandma Mary, Amish Paste, and San Marzano.  Our 16 plants yielded sales of 172 pounds at the farmer’s market and to our neighbors, giving us a yield of 10 pounds per plant.

(I have some confusion on this number, because we used some ourselves and also grew some in our garden, but we can go with this for now.  I am realizing that I need a better idea of how to calculate yields–is it the total amount of saleable produce harvested, or the amount actually sold?  Amount harvested seems the like the ideal, but my most accurate numbers are sales figures.  I didn’t have a great scale at the farm or data recording system to track real harvest numbers.  These will have to do for now.)

All the plants grew well.  The San Marzanos are prized on the TV cooking shows, and they do have great flavor, but they also seemed a bit more prone to disease and the tomatoes are on the small side.  The other two varieties were a lot more convenient for cooking and canning and still had strong flavor.  And I don’t think my customers had a preference for variety.  On the chart below, you can see that we normally sold them for $2/lb but also sold larger batches at 10 pounds for $15.

I love growing and cooking with paste tomatoes, but we seemed to just about max out on what the our farmer’s market could bear.  I think we could sell a few more to neighbors.  However, we only canned about 20 quarts for ourselves, and I think we’d like to get closer to 50-100 jars put away next year.  So maybe we will grow a few more paste tomatoes.  We’ll probably experiment with some different varieties, to see if we can find ones with higher yields (and need to do better at tracking the yield of each variety).

Abby and the Huge Tomato

Customer Abby was brave enough to buy this monster 2 lb brandywine


We grew a variety of heirlooms–Brandywine, Black Seaman, Cherokee Purple, and Moskovich.  The Brandywines were pretty amazing–huge, vigorous plants, and very large fruits (some as large as 2 pounds). To me, they have the absolute best flavor and texture of any tomato.  At the start of the season, I would eat an entire Brandywine for lunch, raw.  They do crack a bit, and late in the season they ripened unevenly.  I’ll definitely grow them again, even more of them, next year.  Their main drawback is that they can grow too large–a 2-pound tomato can be a little intimidating, and not everyone is willing to plunk down $8 for a single tomato.  (Luckily a few brave souls were.)

We only had a few Black Seaman plants.  They were lower yielding, though I loved the color on them.  The flavor was a bit citrusy, but still very fine.  The low yield was definitely a problem and I won’t grow them again.

A lot of people like Cherokee Purple–they’re a good looking tomato, when they’re not cracked.  And they’re a nice size, a little on the small side.  But they cracked way too much and the plants seemed to get a lot of fungal problems.  I found them not worth the effort.

Our Moskovich were okay, a little low yielding, but our looked too much like the hybrid slicers.  At the market, it was hard to sell them for $4/lb when the hybrids look the same and sold for $2.50.  I won’t grow them again.

lots o tomatoes

We grew more than 600 pounds of tomatoes this season!

Overall, we grew more than 600 pounds of tomatoes and sold $1637 of them.  Not bad for $42 worth of seedlings.  You can see why small farmers like to grow them–high yields and high prices.  I think we’ll try growing about twice as many next year.  I’m pretty sure the World PEAS CSA that we supply will double their order for next year, and I think we can do better with our farm stand and neighbor sales.  Of course, we have to grow other stuff, too, and tomatoes can run into disease problems (like late blight) that will kill of the whole crop in a hurry, so they come with a bit of risk.  Not only will we grow a lot more plants, but I think we can also improve our yields significantly with better practices–more aggressive pruning and staking, better feeding schedule, and a spot with more sun.

Just thinking about all these tomatoes makes me long for summer.  I might have to go the kitchen and open up one of the jars we canned.

canning day

We canned tomatoes in lots of different configurations

Here’s a table of our tomato growing and harvest and sales, by the numbers:

[table id=3 /]



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