Lettuce harvest at Pleasant Valley Gardens always starts on June 13th

Give or take…

Yesterday, Michelle Chambers and I went up to see Rich Bonnano of Pleasant Valley Gardens Farm. He was in his usual great mood and took us around his greenhouses, which were full of flowers plants and veggies – all in varying degrees of growth. Rich also showed us his Giant Pumpkin Sprout which he hopes to grow to a 1000 pounds and enter it at the fair. He did point out however that if you are a real working farmer you will never get it to a thousand pounds because you simply don’t have the time to put into it. He told of his friend who sold his farm and went on to grow the winning pumpkin that year.

Anyway, we jumped into the truck and went out to see the fields. First to check out the field he leases across the street where he is growing okra, leeks, mums, and a world crop chipilin. Then off to the field on the mighty Merrimack where he grows the lettuces, rhubarb, romaine hearts, and summer squashes. Rich, as always, is looking forward to a new growing season and has the highest hopes for a good one. At this early point in the season, farmers always go forward as if it’s gonna be the best year ever and wait for nature to change their minds. Oh, and as Rich pointed, out lettuce harvest at Pleasant Valley Gardens always starts on June 13th, always.

View of PVG from Rich's truck.

Narrated by Ciaran Foley.

Everyone’s favorite task – quality control

There is no question that THE perk of the job here at Red Tomato is sampling the goods – otherwise known as quality control. For those of us who have spent the winter planning for the local season, a chance to get our hands on some fresh asparagus from Joe Maugeri of Woolrich Township, NJ (NOW IN STORES) this morning was a major excitement! Two cases arrived in the office via a shipment to Shapiro produce at the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, MA.

We’re all taking some home to test out our grilling, roasting, canning, and steaming skills in the off hours. However, we just couldn’t wait to get a taste of spring. So, Kate roasted us up some in the RT kitchen and we devoured them, along with a FANtastic balsamic brown butter sauce, during this mornings trade circle meeting. Some days, coming to work is just delicious!

Take a look at our asparagus second helpings page for staff recipes!

Our first order of the season!!

OK so we’ve been doing steady business with winter storage apples but TODAY Kate Howell, of our trade team, took our first asparagus order of the season! She summed it up pretty well by saying “I am so excited it’s ridiculous!” And with that, the whole office has taken on the energy that can only come from seriously delicious, and healthy, IN SEASON fruits and veggies.

Baby asparagus at Maugeri Farms. Donna Tramontozzi

Starting next week, shoppers at Kings, D’Agostino’s, Donelans, and other NE customers of Shapiro Produce will be able to get asparagus from New Jersey’s grower of the year Joe Maugeri of Maugeri Farms in Woolrich Township, NJ. And, Boston Organics customers will see organic asparagus from Rick and Laura Pedersen of Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, NY the first week in May (pending frost/fingers crossed!).

So, hit the stores for bunches of medium large fresher than fresh (no more than 48 hrs from farm to store) LOCAL asparagus. Have we mentioned that we couldn’t be more excited about the start of the season!?

Time to get out of the office!

As asparagus and strawberry season approaches (rejoice!), it’s time for RT staffers and our retail customers to get out of the office. Not only do we love farm visits but we find that our buyers develop a much deeper connection to our products once they’ve met the farmer and seen the whole operation in action. Farm visit season kicked off this week with a most successful trip to Wards Berry Farm in Sharon, MA and Clark Bros Orchard in Ashfield, MA:

April 13, 2010

8:30am. Michael and Tim, and Ciarin (our new Team Leader!) host a couple of farm visits for one of our top and favorite customers. First stop, Ward’s Berry Farm to visit with Jim Ward. While there, Jim highlights his new plantings and processes for watering the plants. He also introduces us to the Germinator, a handmade unit that creates just the right light, temperature and moisture to jump start natures process.

Germinator at Ward's Berry Farm

We then take a tour of his farm, seeing the fields that are being prepared for upcoming plantings and showing signs of early crops like strawberries (hooray).

12:30pm. Next stop for our group was Clark Brothers Orchards where we met Clark family, including Aaron, Dana and Brian. Barney and Chris Hodges of Sunrise Orchards drove from Cornwall, Vermont to join us for a wonderful lunch and storytelling time at the Clark’s home. After some delicious, homemade apple crisp (apples from the orchard), we got a tour of the farm to see the fields of apple trees that were just beginning to show buds and promise of coming apple varieties.

Narrated by Tim Huggins.

Once the beds are put to bed

Every morning I drive past Wards Berry Farm on my way to Red Tomato. I try and appreciate this moment of my workday because it offers an opportunity to witness the annual life cycle of the farm. Earlier this week, I noticed a backhoe and some pipes in the middle of what was the tomato field this past season. “Huh – an irrigation pipe?” I thought to myself. Musing on the rush between turning over the soil, installing a brand new system, getting a cover crop in, and the ground freezing, I was reminded of all the hard work that happens on the farm in the winter. The work that most of us, no matter how devote, never witness: budgeting; ordering supplies; planning field maps; researching varieties; maintaining customer relationships; fixing equipment; and making time to learn from colleagues (the winter farm conference season is a big one!).

Many of us like to romanticize the life of a farmer, spending sunny summer days outdoors and cold winter ones by the hearth, but the reality is: farming is a year-round job. When it is cold and nasty outside, the farmers of the Northeast are working just as hard to bring us fresh, healthy food as they are when the tomatoes are ripe and a farm visit sounds appealing. So, even if your shopping cart boasts more bananas and storage apples than it does farm-fresh bounty, don’t forget your regional food system isn’t snoozing, it’s already deep into the new year.

Learning the Red Tomato way

As a long-time event volunteer coordinator, I was famous for my “Vibe” speech. This was a once a year opportunity to convey to a staff of up to 300 people what it means to carry the spirit of an organization, on their person and through their actions, for an entire day. After years of giving this speech, it came to be the highlight of the big day. There is tremendous joy in communicating high-level ideals in a way that inspires people to take on a new perspective – even if it’s only for eight hours.

When I arrived at Red Tomato’s door step, I already understood a portion of the Red Tomato vibe. Freshness, flavor, fairness, and quality in terms of farmers and food systems made perfect sense. But the Red Tomato way- that was a different story. It took more than a year of observation and participation to fully realize that the deepest motivations and the process by which they are expressed at Red Tomato can be compared to an onion: beautifully fresh and locally grown but always composed of layer upon layer.


Lessons Learned — from Vietnam to Food Systems

I’ve been gripped by all the Vietnam and Afghanistan comparisons. How much can Obama advisors learn by studying the Vietnam War? At Red Tomato we’re always questioning how our successes and failures can become useful to other groups and farms. Not just kind of interesting, but really useful, the basis for planning and decision-making.

Here’s the theory: philanthropic funders prefer organizations with promising new ideas that can be developed, tested, improved, because they serve as a model that others can replicate. In replicability lies the exponential impact on society, the bang for the buck.