A Maze of Tomatoes

If you’ve driven on I-80 north towards Tahoe in the fall, you’ve seen the signs for the “World’s Biggest Corn Maze” just outside of Dixon.  There, people come out for the day to get lost among the paths cut through a 150 acre corn field.  The pattern for the maze is visible only from above; a different design every year.
There’s crop maze here at Terra Firma, too, but it’s not in our corn field and it’s not open to the public.  We simply call it “the Tomato Field”.  Just like a corn maze, the plants are so tall that most people cannot see very far.  But it’s not hard to find your way out, since all the rows run the same direction.  Instead, the tricky part is finding the tomato varieties you want to harvest.
We grow over thirty varieties of tomatoes.  Some are “heirloom” types that have been saved by small farmers and backyard gardeners over the years because they were particularly delicious or maybe just interesting looking.  Others are hybrids, bred by seed companies to produce well under certain conditions (wet, cold, hot, dry, etc) that might render the heirlooms less than productive.
Most of these tomatoes are so-called “indeterminate” types, which means they are vines that grow continuously and must be supported by a trellis.  In a perennial crop like grapes, trellis systems are permanently installed and maintained over decades.  But since we rotate our tomato fields around the farm each year, we must install our tomato trellis every year and then take it down at the end of the season.  For this reason we use a rudimentary system of metal stakes pounded in every 7 feet in each row, which is over 1000 stakes per acre.  Then we weave twine through the stakes to support the plants. It takes half a mile of twine to support a single row of tomatoes, or roughly 20 miles per acre.  We pound the stakes with a machine, but the twine is all done by hand, one layer at a time as the plants grow.
When the tomato plants reach the tops of the stakes, we prune them with a hedge clippers.  By this time, we have a field of a hundred or so narrow alleys, walled off on either side by a 6 ft. tall tomato plant.
The tomato trellis serves several purposes.  It keeps the fruit off the ground, which is especially important for delicate heirloom varieties.  And the rows also shade each other from the strong afternoon sun here, which can cook the fruit if they are directly exposed to it.  Finally, it makes it much easier harvest the tomatoes.
Finding the type of tomato you want to harvest, on the other hand, is not always so easy.  The rows are marked with a code denoting the variety.  But the different varieties don’t all mature at the same time, so we are often harvesting some rows but not others.  Every day someone has to walk down the rows, deciding which need to get picked and which don’t.  To harvest an acre, you have to walk about a mile and half each day.  We harvest each three-acre field for about a month before moving on to the next planting.  Over the course of the season we grow 15 acres of trellised tomatoes.  Over the course of the season, the crew will walk over a hundred miles in the maze.
This is the first week that our heirloom tomatoes have really kicked in, so we’re spending a lot of time in the maze.  And you will find a few heirlooms in your box today, with more in the coming weeks.


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