SD Green Feature: Flying Tomato Farms, Part 1

For this installment of the South Dakota Green Feature, I’ve asked Rebecca Terk of Flying Tomato Farms, Vermillion, SD, a few questions about her market farming efforts. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen Rebecca’s name pop up in a couple newspaper articles about organic growing and farmers markets. I didn’t make a connection with her, though, until she began blogging recently. Although she’s new to the blogging scene (but already a prolific blogger!), she definitely has a lot of experience with both small-scale farming and writing (she teaches English at USD).

This is only the third online interview I’ve done for the Green Feature, but already I’ve learned a ton from the people who have so kindly shared their wit and wisdom with me…and you. I love the fact that each interview has given me leads on other people in this little corner of the world who are carrying on sustainability projects I wasn’t aware of.

Rebecca was quite generous in answering my questions, and unlike a good editor, I’d hate to leave out anything she said. So, as you can tell by the title, I’m going to post this interview in parts. Maybe it’s the long cold spell we’ve been having that makes me want to treat the blog like a good simmering stew. Or maybe I’m just cheating by letting someone else write my next few posts! At any rate, enjoy the first part of this particular feature.

How and when did you become interested in organic/sustainable growing? I grew up in Middlebury, Vermont–an area where there’s lots of access to fresh, local food. We had a big vegetable garden plus a lot of other flower and perennial gardens while I was growing up, and I don’t recall the use of any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. My brother and I would go out with coffee cans full of soapy water and pick Japanese beetles from the roses, and we would spend what seemed like hours picking and snapping green beans for dinner and to freeze for winter use. I know I wasn’t terribly fond of all the garden work, but that time we spent in the garden was family time—my brother and I worked together with my mom and dad to till, plant, weed, and harvest. Growing our own food never seemed weird or exotic to me—it was a part of our family life. My parents let my brother and me sell some of our sweet corn from a table set up at the end of the driveway, so we learned early that you could not only feed yourself, you could feed your neighbors, too—and maybe make a little money at it.

Happy Harvest, photo by Harry L. ScholtenWhen I moved to South Dakota in 1993, I was kind of horrified by the supermarkets. You just could not get anything fresh, never mind local. I asked a produce manager once if they had an organic section, and she looked at me liked I’d just stepped off a UFO. I became a vegetarian in 1995 (I’m not anymore), and I actually gained a bunch of weight from all the bread, cheese, and eggs I was eating. I’d put a few frozen peas in my mac ‘n cheese and call it as good as it was going to get.

I moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1996, and it was like being back home—there was so much good, fresh food! But, being a poor barista, it was hard to afford all the green things I craved. I started hearing about these farms that operated on the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model, where you could either pay for a membership or work for one, and you would get a box of fresh food every week for the entire season. The first brochure I came across was one for Vermont Valley Farms, and I went out to visit them in their picturesque valley near Blue Mounds. It was March—chilly and foggy, and I hung out and talked with Barb Perkins in her warm greenhouse while she blended her potting mix. I fell in love with that place—the Perkins family and Joe Schmidt, the flower farmer; Mr. Britches, the goat; and their dog, River. I fell in love with the humus-y smell of the greenhouse in not-quite-Spring, the fields still under a light coating of snow, and the pair of Sandhill cranes that would fly up and down the valley every morning and evening.

I worked at Vermont Valley all that season and a little of the next, sometimes doing things I’d hated doing when I was a kid—picking green beans for six hours at a stretch, weeding spinach on my hands and knees—but I was doing it with a crew of friendly and committed people, and the produce we grew there was some of the best I’ve ever had. We’d take turns bringing a loaf of fresh bread for lunch, and we’d sit together at the picnic table in the yard and feast on the bread and whatever we were harvesting for deliveries that week: sometimes a huge salad of fresh greens with dressing one of us would whip up in the kitchen, sometimes a big pot of steamed new potatoes and green beans all slathered with fresh butter. I would farm-sit on occasion when the Perkins’ needed a little vacation, and I could not get over the luxury of sauntering down to the gardens and filling a little basket with whatever seemed good for dinner—a bulb of fennel, an onion, a couple tomatoes, a pepper and a little sprig of basil–then walking back up to the kitchen and preparing my meal. Talk about fresh—how about five or ten minutes from farm to table? If you’ve never had food like that, you just don’t know what food is. Food like that makes you feel more alive.

I learned a lot about different organic techniques working at Vermont Valley—they were certified organic, and they were also committed to sustaining their land—trying to reduce outside inputs while keeping the fertility high. When I moved back to Vermillion in 1998, I realized I had to start growing some of my own food if I was going to retain my sanity. My first garden was a little 10’ x 10’ plot behind the trailer I was renting. The soil was awful, but I managed to improve it enough to get a decent crop of tomatoes, peppers, a few herbs, and some lettuce. I have a little Polaroid of that garden, and me standing so proudly behind it, and it floors me every time I look at it and think, quite literally, about how much I’ve grown.

Click here for Part 2.

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About EMH

Forty-something. South Dakotan. Mother to 11-year-old K.L. Wife to Cory. Lutheran pastor. Novice organic gardener. Sustainable living aspirer.
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