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Heirloom Tomato Farmer Finds Beauty In The Ugly

Jesse Baker for NPR
Tim Stark says he was lucky to get into the tomato business 12 years ago, when he had an "incredible crop" of 60 varieties.
Jesse Baker for NPR /
Tim Stark says he was lucky to get into the tomato business 12 years ago, when he had an "incredible crop" of 60 varieties.

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.

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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