Garlic, tomatoes and the tale of Keith’s Farm

Crops receiving sprinkler irrigation on Keith’s Farm.
All photos by Keith Stewart, unless otherwise noted.

When it became time to select the title for his book, Keith Stewart, a New York grower and author, says he was thinking about something along a garlic theme. After all, for the last 20 years, he’s had all but a corner on the garlic market, at least in Manhattan where Keith’s Farm farmstand has been a mainstay at iconic Union Square Greenmarket, the stomping ground for many New York City foodies.

When he first started growing and selling garlic, there wasn’t much of it available at Greenmarket. Now, Stewart says it was just luck that he landed on a wonderful variety, that his consumers raved over and demanded more, and that his crop in Port Jervis was extensively covered in New York’s newspapers and magazines.

“It built our reputation,” he says. “Everyone thought our garlic must be good.”

Still, his popular book is titled “It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life,” which is also out now in a revised and slightly expanded 2010 edition.

In it, Stewart, a New Zealand native who graduated from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, tells of his transition from a Manhattan project manager to tending organic tomatoes. In 1986, at the age of 42, Stewart took the plunge. He bought the farm—literally—then became a farmer with no experience and no immediate plan. He read books, attended conferences and learned on the job.

Next year marks his 25th as a farmer. In all, Stewart grows 100 varieties of vegetables and herbs on 14 acres. The entire farm is 88.5 acres.

His book covers farming, the economics of it, the land, the animals, growing garlic, tomatoes and potatoes and more. It’s on neighbors, and on farming as a metaphor for life. His wife, Flavia Bacarella, illustrated its pages.

The second edition updated numbers and added five new chapters, including ones on the 2009 tomato blight, truck breakdowns to and from market and the difference between hybrids, heirlooms and genetically modified seeds. The fitting last chapter now covers the success—finally—of securing a conservation easement on their land.

Keith Stewart.
Photo by Fran Collin.

While garlic is Keith’s Farm’s signature crop, he says the tomato story is more interesting and current, given the blight of a summer ago, and the brilliant recovery this past summer. “Last year was such a disaster,” he says. “This year, we’ve had an incredibly good crop.”

In fact, on a typical Saturday this past summer at Greenmarket, he sold between 800 and 1,000 pounds of tomatoes, many of them heirlooms.

Doing it right after the blight

Of Stewart’s heirloom tomato varieties, there are the Paul Robeson, a Russian tomato named after the famous black American; a Cherokee Purple; a Striped German (which is yellow with reddish stripes); Brandywine; and Rose.

“These are some terrific names, but their flavors are subtle,” Stewart says.

However, the heirlooms don’t travel well. They’re thin-skinned, so they are not often available in supermarkets and not grown by mass producers. “Even if we pick them the day before, we have to be gentle in getting them (to market).”

This past summer, growing tomatoes was easier because it was hot and dry in the Northeast. Initial rains in June helped saturate the growing plants, then as the tomatoes ripened, there wasn’t much rain. “We irrigated a bit, but too much water lends itself to a watery fruit,” he says. Hot and dry conditions lead to perks in flavor, especially when the crop ripens quickly.

The previous June was wet and cool. Disease set in and spread. Some blight carried over to this past year, but not much since it dried up. “It was a complete contrast—and a really nice one,” Stewart says. “Tomatoes can be a lucrative crop when you have a good year, though it doesn’t last that long, usually eight weeks. There’s nothing quite like a garden-grown, vine-ripened tomato. They are a huge, huge crop—a popular one, maybe the most popular.”

It helps, he says, that when tomatoes are ready, they’re at their best over a short period. That, in turn, makes them more desirable.

In an attempt to compensate for the blight in 2009, and an estimated $40,000 in losses from his tomato crop, Stewart over-compensated by making use of a new and larger 30-foot-by-96-foot high tunnel, where he planted 300 tomato plants. Its costs ran about $10,000.

Another high tunnel, though half the size, was home to 40 to 50 tomato plants in the summer of 2009. In the fields, he typically plants some 2,400 tomato plants. Those inside in the controlled environment in 2009 weathered the blight, and that harvest helped him break closer to even on tomatoes that season.

This year’s expanded selection of 300 plants also had their vines attached to a line suspended from horizontal poles above, so when the vines were clipped to this stem, the plants grew even more vertically. The strategy took advantage of the abundant vertical space in the tunnel.

Harvested garlic waiting to be hung for curing.

“It’s a form of trellising,” Stewart explains. “It worked nicely, but we’re still learning how to do it better. We may not have watered them enough, but it’s created a different kind of culture. We had good early fruit, and it was the first batch of tomatoes we took to market, but we had so much (plus those tomatoes in the field that did well) that it was almost superfluous.”

He also grew thyme and basil in the high tunnel and others of his trademark herbs.

His main concern with growing intensively in the tunnel is the need to really look after the soil, though it’s hard not to use the tunnel once you have it. At some point, he fears he could wear out the protected soil.

“Growing is hardly a static business,” Stewart says. “We all look at what sells at market, and what we’re able to grow most successfully based on our soils. It’s a dynamic occupation. I always say that I must remain loose on feet. You don’t want to get stuck between a rock and a hard place. If all we depended on was tomatoes, then last year would have nearly wiped us out.”

Garlic’s growing popularity

Garlic, Stewart says, has become a more popular small farm crop in the Northeast, particularly in the last five or 10 years. Years ago, it wasn’t even considered a significant vegetable. Now, it is.

Almost all the garlic in the country’s supermarkets is grown in China. It’s cheap and lacks quality. “We’ve found those who like it, those who know it’s not only a good food, but a curative as well. They’re not just buying it for flavor.”

However, Stewart says garlic isn’t that easy to grow, though he pulls about 10,000 of the best bulbs he can each year. All his garlic—some 60,000 plants a season—is Rocambole, a variety of hardneck garlic that descended from Calabria, Italy. A neighbor, Andy Burigo, first shared it with him.

“Anything with thin leaves (like garlic) will not compete well with weeds, so there’s a lot of weeding,” he says.

Especially after a fallow year, a cover crop—often clover or leguminous cover or this past season’s sorghum sudangrass— is required, and a lot of compost.

This year, Stewart is also experimenting with an interesting additive: fish parts, refuse from a smoked salmon purveyor. Stewart inherits a few hundred pounds a week and has been filling garbage cans of heads, tails and skeletons and composting all summer. He mixes in wood shavings and horse bedding and manure. “It doesn’t smell too good, but we’ll spread it this fall (on the garlic plots),” he says.

Then, he plants the garlic in late October and early November, pressing cloves into the ground, then covering them with two or three inches of soil. Before winter truly sets in, Stewart then covers each planted area with two or three inches of aged horse bedding, from the 50 to 100 tons of the stuff he brings to the farm each year. The extra layer protects the area from frostbite and freeze-thaw cycles that can kick the bulb out of the ground.

In the spring, all that cover works as an early weed preventative and also conserves moisture. All of the cover gradually decomposes, and after harvest, the residue continues to work by putting organic properties back into the soil.

Slowing down? Maybe.

At 66, Stewart admits he’s slowing down. He’s doing less than before, and delegating more often. “It’s not the easiest thing, but it’s been going on for a few years,” Stewart says. “I have to back off even more.”

Still, he puts in a 17-hour day on Saturdays. Others handle Wednesdays at Greenmarket. Keith’s Farm has seven live-in interns.

Stewart has such positive interactions at market, but says all the consumers want a piece of him—and business is flourishing. He says the farm is at the top of its game, and that meeting public demand “with the best local fresh produce knows no bounds.”

“We have such a loyal base,” he says. “We know most everyone by name. We know when they’re getting married, divorcing and when they’ll be on vacation. It’s hard to leave it. To do so would be giving up a significant part of my life.”

Farm life, he insists, isn’t killing him, but rather keeping him healthy—in a way, though his body is more tired and weaker, and he’s more prone to farm accidents. “I hope it’s not killing me, but my wife sometimes complains that it is,” he says.

He’s writing another book, too, a how-to for beginning organic farmers that’s already contracted, but right now he says it’s a “long road ahead,” and a big project on his plate.

“I just enjoy doing what I do,” Stewart admits. “We can have a healthier food supply, and all learn to be stewards of the land rather than exploiters of it. I continue to work on ways of getting that message out.”

For more information
Keith Stewart & Flavia Bacarella

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.