As we get ready for the 9th Annual Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival, benefiting Georgia Organics, on Sunday, July 16, we wanted to highlight some of the farmers who make the delicious meals possible with their hard work in the fields.
In this edition, we spoke with Farmer Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farm in Newborn, Georgia, who gave some advice for home growers, tips for finding the best ‘maters, and where he thinks the movement is heading.
What brings you back to the Festival each year?
The Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival is becoming a huge event every time. This year I’m paired with Farm Burger.
Tomatoes are very popular and very tasty, but they’re available year round, so people lose touch with how good they really are. When you find a ripe tomato… most people don’t even know that conventional tomatoes are picked green. They’re sprayed to make them ripen evenly. They are flavorless, really. I can’t eat tomatoes out of season. It’s so important to seek out small farmers and eat their tomatoes in season because it’s the best thing you can have.
You don’t have to do much with a tomato. My favorite way to eat it is good sourdough bread, cheese, mayo, and arugula. That’s all. I also love tomatoes in tabbouleh– you get a sudden burst of sweetness. But we tend to eat them mostly raw.
How is your tomato crop this season?
We have well over 1,000 tomato plants. The caterpillars are enjoying them this year. The warm winter—it’s a battle. There are different sprays you can use that are certified organic. Little moths go inside the plant, so we try and get them by hand. It’s labor-intensive.
It’s a fairly short season, and we try and extend the season as long as we can with high tunnels. We are picking some cherries now, the caterpillars did a number on the first ones. We could have them all the way to Thanksgiving with the high tunnels. For some other small farms, the season is much shorter- you plant them in mid-April and it can be hard to get tomatoes to last through August with the humidity and pests. There are a lot of challenges and it’s a huge investment. If you compare it to something like a radish, for example, you plant a seed and 30 days later you have a crop. With a tomato, you first grow it in a greenhouse, then transplant it, stake it, take the first few bottom leaves off so diseases won’t creep up from the soil. You put all this work and money into it—January to June—and you finally have tomatoes.
It’s not the easiest thing to grow. Farmers have to work really hard to get a good tomato crop, but it’s worth every penny. It’s a good money maker and a fantastic taste. We’ve been saving our own seeds for a long time, and Black Krim are so, so good. Another variety called Bradley with a pinkish color from Arkansas is fantastic. The skin is very fragile– these are not tomatoes you can ship. We grow baby red plum which is like a mini Roma tomato, a pinkish color with green and white stripes and really, really flavorful. We try to do some tomatoes that come out of “mistakes,” we try to propagate to get a different strain going, like little ones called Black Olives. We try to play with different things with our own seeds, to control for the height, size, and shape. Indeterminate tomatoes just keep on growing and get really tall. We like the shorter varieties for the ease of trellising.
What advice do you have for home gardeners growing tomatoes?
Give them plenty of space and really baby them initially. What you need to do is pluck off the flowers at first to allow the plant to become strong first. Pluck of the bottom leaves and the suckers, clean it up, and pick some of the flowers until the plant is foot and a half or two feet. You’ll have stronger fruit, bigger fruit if you spend a little time initially.
Tell us a little bit about your farm.
It’s called Crystal Organic Farm because there is a little spot on our farm where you can pick crystals! We’ve been farming for 20 years and have managed to be successful. My mom lives on the farm and was quite involved years ago, and my youngest son helps me out, so it’s a multigenerational farm. We’re really small scale but consistent and grow year round. We harvest something every week of the year, which allows us to have full time employees. We sell strictly at the Morningside Farmers Market for over 20 years now. We’ve seen people grow up there. We also sell a good bit of food to Staplehouse, Empire State South, Farm Burger, and Cakes and Ale, Bread and Butterfly and Miller Union, Bacchanalia, Floataway, Garnish & Gather, Restaurant Eugene, Holeman and Finch, Avalon Catering, among others. We have a box from Crystal Organic Farm that we offer to people locally, and they can pick it up at the farm or at the health food store in Madison. That’s been a growing thing, and they like the options and the choice.
Where do you think the local farm to table movement is headed?
I think people have seen the benefit of supporting local farms. The more the food scene changes, people are all over eating local food. There are a lot more small farmers now trying to sell their food in Atlanta. It’s not a bad thing, but we’ve got to think more about what we grow. We can’t just grow cucumbers and zucchini because everyone is growing them and they’re easy to produce like crazy. There are other things I can grow. It’s a changing market. As the farmer, you have to be more attentive of what you grow and be a little bit ahead of the curve. I look at these documentaries about the farm to table movement, and the farm looks so beautiful and like it’s so much fun. It is fun, and I do love it, but it’s 24-7. We’re dealing with living things, and when they’re ready, they’re ready, we can’t say “woah, I’m taking the day off.” And you’re dealing with the weather. It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s a business after all. Some people don’t quite have it. But after 20 years, very few farmers are still around from when I started. Now there are new ones, a younger generation.