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It's a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life

It's a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life

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It's a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life

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Lançado em:
Aug 10, 2010


A new edition of longtime farmer Keith Stewart’s deeply personal and highly acclaimed book on the hows and whys of running a small organic farm in 21st century America—updated with five new essays, a foreword by Deborah Madison, and gorgeous new woodcuts by Flavia Bacarella

Keith Stewart, already in his early forties and discontent with New York’s corporate grind, moved upstate and started a one-man organic farm in 1986. Today, having surmounted the seemingly endless challenges to succeeding as an organic farmer, Keith employs seven to eight seasonal interns and provides 100 varieties of fresh produce to the shoppers and chefs who flock twice weekly, May to December, to his stand at Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan—the only place where his produce is sold. It’s a Long Road to a Tomato opens a window into the world of Keith’s Farm, with essays on Keith’s development as a farmer, the nuts and bolts of organic farming for an urban market, farm animals domestic and wild, and the political, social, and environmental issues relevant to agriculture today—and their impact on all of us.

Lançado em:
Aug 10, 2010

Sobre o autor

Keith Stewart is a NOFA-NY certified organic vegetable grower in Westtown, New York, who has been selling to the NYC Union Square Greenmarket since it began. Keith’s garlic has been called “the most soulful garlic on earth” by Time Out New York. The New York Times said, “Keith’s farm grows garlic from another planet compared with the stuff in supermarkets.” He is the author of It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life. His essays appear in The Valley Table, “the Hudson Valley’s only magazine devoted to regional farms, food, and cuisine.”

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It's a Long Road to a Tomato - Keith Stewart



In my life, 1986 was a year of change: I married my long-time girlfriend, Flavia Bacarella, said goodbye to the big city, and set out to become a farmer. This book is the story of what followed. It has not been all roses. But it has mostly been a good story, or, I should say, the right story. Even on days when the sun was not shining, I knew that being a farmer was the best choice for me. But what is a little surprising is that I really had no inkling of this until I had spent nearly forty years of my life doing other things.

Most of the chapters in this book are free-standing essays written over the past twelve years, though some recount stories that reach back to earlier times. They are not always presented in chronological order. Some trace my often-faltering development as an organic farmer; some try to give expression to what I feel is unsound in the way we feed ourselves and treat our planet; others recount the more memorable, at least to me, experiences that twenty-three years of farming have provided.

The book was first published in 2006. In the four years since then, life, of course, has not stood still. The farm has continued to operate and flourish: More young workers have labored in the fields; more singular cats, dogs, and chickens have shared the land with us; more crops gone to market; more generations of barn swallows come and gone; more geese passed overhead. And there have been more farming stories to tell, some of which have found their way into this new, expanded, and updated edition of It’s a Long Road to a Tomato.

Breakdown: Perils of the Truck-Farming Life describes what it feels like when your truck fails on the way home from market, after a very long day. A Beaver before Breakfast is the tale of an early-morning encounter with an unusual and impressive visitor. About Seeds is an attempt to elucidate the distinctions between different kinds of seeds—be they heirloom, hybrid, open-pollinated, or genetically modified.

If I ever had any doubts about the title chosen for my book, they were dispelled in 2009. That was a very bad year for tomatoes. Along with many other growers up and down the east coast, we suffered the ravages of late blight, a disease that can wipe out entire fields of tomatoes and potatoes within days. And it did wipe out almost all of our tomatoes, so that the road to this especially valued vegetable (or fruit, if you prefer) became even longer. Luckily, the potatoes fared better. One of the chapters in this new edition tells of our struggles with late blight, the disease that sent a million Irish peasants to their graves.

But 2009 also had its high points. Michelle Obama had the imagination and the mettle to plant an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn, for which she was severely criticized by the Mid-America Crop Life Association and other groups that promote the use of agricultural chemicals—to me, this seems a bit like a heavy smoker being infuriated by others who have made the choice not to smoke. And Tom Vilsack, our nation’s secretary of agriculture, took a jackhammer to the parking lot in front of the Department of Agriculture, as a first step toward installing an organic garden there too. I took these to be positive developments. Vilsack said that he would like to eat more vegetables and perhaps thereby live a longer and healthier life so that he might enjoy his grandchildren—something his own parents did not live long enough to do. That makes sense to me.

But, most significantly, in 2009, even with the economy in dire straits, unemployment at record levels, and a sense of disquiet across the land, it was clear to me that a growing number of my fellow countrymen and women were not about to turn their backs on fresh, local food that tastes good and is grown or raised by people they can actually talk to. It is heartening to know this. Like Tom Vilsack, more and more Americans understand that there is a direct connection between what they eat and the way they feel, and perhaps even a connection between what they eat and their actual longevity. As we confront our broken healthcare system and epidemic levels of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, should not a consideration of the food we eat—the very fuel that keeps our bodies running—be front and center in any discussion? Certainly, we have many miles to go and powerful interests standing in the way, but I am confident that the public’s enthusiasm for local food, produced in a sustainable manner, will only increase. And, as it does, it is my hope that we will move toward a healthier, happier, and more earth-friendly tomorrow. Of course, in order for this to happen, we will need new generations of small, diversified farmers scattered across this rich and sparkling land. If this book persuades just one man or woman to take up the agrarian life, it will have done its job.

We will need new generations of small, diversified farmers scattered across this rich and sparkling land.

The last chapter of this new edition of Tomato describes a major change in status of the farm on which my wife and I live. In 2007, a conservation easement was placed on the land which protects it from future development and ensures that it will remain open space in perpetuity. For both of us, this was an important achievement that we had been working toward for several years. The idea of a housing development or strip mall, even in the distant future, on the land we have become so intimately involved with was anathema to us. When it comes time to move on, we will know that this old farm, with its glistening ponds, its many and diverse inhabitants, its fertile fields and rocky woods, will keep on going.

KEITH STEWART February 2010

The Farmer and His Dog

A CHANGE of LIFE: on becoming a farmer

Twenty-four years ago, a little past the age of forty, I was living in a small apartment in New York City, working as a project manager for a consulting firm, wearing a jacket and tie to the office every day. It didn’t feel good. I had never aspired to be a member of the corporate world, but somehow that’s where I had ended up. I had little affection for the work I was doing and seldom experienced any feelings of pride or fulfillment. Rather, I felt like an impostor, obliged to feign interest and enthusiasm much of the time.

I also felt that time was running out, that I was moving rapidly into middle age, that my life was getting used up with not much to show for it. Both my body and my disposition suffered from chronic low back pain, and the fitness of my youth seemed long gone. Colds and flu and other ailments were common occurrences in my life. Most mornings, as I got nearer to the office, a heaviness would settle into the pit of my stomach. Finally, there I was. I’d be going up in the elevator, but my spirits were coming down as I readied myself for the hours that lay ahead. There was nothing wrong with the work I was doing. But it wasn’t right for me.

Today I am a farmer, a grower of organic vegetables and herbs, and I can honestly say that I am a happier man. True, I work more hours, have no company retirement plan or paid vacation, and have more things to worry about. But I have less back trouble than I used to; I rarely catch a cold; and I have almost forgotten what it’s like to be down with the flu. I enjoy good food and a midday nap and I sleep soundly at night. I’ve lost weight and put on some muscle around the shoulders. The shirts and jackets of my earlier life soon became too small for me and have long since gone to the Salvation Army. My life now is more full, more varied, and more interesting. Often it is more demanding and exhausting, but it is always more real. I’ve never for one moment thought of going back to the old days.

It started as a yearning: to live on a piece of land, closer to nature; to work outside with my body as well as my brain; to leave behind the world of briefcases, computers, corporate clients, and non-opening windows. I knew next to nothing about growing vegetables, but I had always had a love of land and wild places. When I was younger I had thought of being a forest ranger, a game warden, a wilderness guide, but by age forty my needs and desires were more modest. Ten or twenty acres of good land—a small farm, a place with lots of life on it, a place to put down roots and live more in accord with my environmental inclinations—seemed like just the ticket.

My then girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Flavia Bacarella, and I began making weekend excursions from New York City to Orange County in upstate New York to visit real estate brokers. It was quite an adventure for two people who had never owned property in their lives. But once we got started, things moved fast. Within a couple of months we chanced upon a somewhat unkempt but fully functioning dairy farm, with woods and fields, ridges and vales, a pond, a stream, a barn, and an old house set well back from the road. It was much bigger and more expensive than what we had in mind, and a little farther from New York City than we wanted to be, but it was definitely the right spot. I knew it immediately.

Farm Map showing cropland, pasture, woods, ponds, creek, and buildings

In the first half year or so, I kept my city job and planted a garden behind the house on weekends. With the help of some aged cow manure, things grew with wild abandon. We had bushels of tomatoes and enormous zucchini and peas and beans and basil. Encouraged by this early success, the next year I signed up with the Greenmarket program in New York City and became a full-time farmer. I paid a neighbor to plow and disk an acre of hay field and set about planting everything that caught my eye in the first seed catalog I came upon.

The second time around, I learned about weeds and woodchucks and what lack of rain can do. But still, many plants grew and bore fruit; tiny seedlings turned into heads of lettuce and escarole and mizuna and tatsoi and red mustard and other exotic vegetables that had not even been in my vocabulary the year before. I worked hard in the field every day, and at night I read books about how to grow vegetables and live on the land. I was inspired and energized and relatively undaunted by the inevitable failures and setbacks that came my way.

Each Thursday, whatever looked good enough to sell got picked, packed, and loaded onto the back of an old Dodge pickup and taken down to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan for sale on Friday. In the summer, when she wasn’t working, Flavia came along to help me. We set up a ten-by-ten-foot canopy and spread out what vegetables we had on a couple of card tables. We hung up a scale and put out a cigar box for the cash and an old ashtray for change.

From the very beginning, people seemed delighted to see us and bought what we had to offer almost unhesitatingly. My friends and co-workers in the city had all thought I was a little crazy, that my back to the land urge would be short-lived. I was beginning to think that, contrary to popular wisdom, I might actually make a living as a farmer. (It didn’t happen in the first year, or the second, but in the third year I turned a small profit and almost every year since then has been better than the one before.)

In the third year I took on my first assistant, Mitch, an eighteen-year-old vegetarian college student, and started going to a second market, at the World Trade Center. Mitch and I got along well and work got done much faster with another pair of hands. When he went back to school in August, a couple who had just returned from a Peace Corps stint in Ecuador came to replace him. They also made a nice addition to the farm. I was on my way to becoming an agricultural employer.

There has been much to learn. But when your heart agrees with what you are doing, the learning is easier and more fun. Now, more than twenty years on, I am firmly established as a small farmer. I make a moderate living and have been able to reinvest some profits back into the farm.

If you want to succeed as a small farmer, one farmer I know once said, you better do it as though your life depends on it. He may be right. Running a small, diversified, organic farm in today’s environment of industrial agriculture, chemicals, and cheap food is a bit like swimming against the current. It taxes every muscle and sinew in your body, and a few in your brain as well.

But for those who are drawn to it, farming offers a different kind of life and an assortment of rewards and satisfactions not readily found in other types of work. It is performed in the outdoors, in the realm of the sun, the wind, and the rain. It is varied and vigorous work. The farmer is his or her own boss. We make decisions for better or worse and move on. We deal with tangible, living things. We see the fruits of our labor and the results of our neglect. We are on good terms with the natural world, or we should be, and we inhabit it in a practical, down-to-earth

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  • (5/5)
    i liked this book because it reminded me of the farm that i worked on. i'm sure this book would have been completely foreign to me had i read it a year ago, but now so many parts were just familiar in a way i can't really describe. i loved the part about the tractor and the cows especially, because i happen to love tractors and cows. it made me really sad to read the little parts that interns wrote, because i just wanted to be an intern on a farm again. what i really loved was when he talked about garlic. and i just have to elaborate on this garlic thing. all summer on the farm i worked on i heard about this famous garlic that a farmer sold at the greenmarket in new york. apparently this garlic arrived in the united states as one clove and has just multiplied since then. anyway, some of this garlic made its way to the farm i worked on, and i helped harvest it and heard this story so many times. it was really exciting when i got to the chapter on garlic and realized that this was the farmer that popularized this variety of garlic. i know this isn't exciting to anyone but me, but i loved it.

    anyway, it seems as though this farmer really knows what he is doing and i liked his stories about his farming neighbors and his views on sustainable agriculture and all that.
  • (4/5)
    Keith Stewart's It's a Long Road to a Tomato is an informative and entertaining look into the life of an organic farmer. Stewart describes how he decided to take up farming in his early 40's, the economics of running a small farm, selling his vegetables at a New York City market, and the various trials and tribulations of farming in the late 20th and early 21st century.I enjoyed Stewart's writing style. He is at once descriptive while economical with his prose - echoing his character as a farmer, I'm sure. Each chapter stands on its own as an individual essay, so the reader can pick up the book at any time to get a glimpse into farm life. Stewart doesn't romanticize farming, but he also acknowledges its special joys. There are several chapters on the politics and economics of farming, which are very enlightening to the non-farmer.