Great Gardens: Tomato’s Tang May Be Drought’s Silver Lining at Granby’s Red Fire Farm

MassLive, August 10, 2016, by Patrick O’Connor

Standing at the end of a long row of cherry tomatoes, Sarah Voiland looked up at a single storm cloud that seemed to swell with rain.

Voiland, an owner of Red Fire Farm in Granby and Montague, grabbed her cellphone.
“I spend way too much time looking at the weather,” she said while reading the hourly forecast, hoping for an end to the extreme drought that has been stressing New England farms. “It’s not getting better.”

It was July 29, and the lack of rain had struck farms at the worst possible time – their growing season – pushing them to change their usual strategies.

“Traditionally, New England farms have not had to do as much irrigation,” she said.

Since she and her husband, Ryan Voiland, opened Red Fire Farm in 2001, they have dealt with smaller droughts, but never one that extended through the growing season when they are establishing plants. “We have never had this kind of drought,” she said.

To cope, they have spent more time laying copper pipes to nearby rivers and ponds and pumping water into sprinkler systems in the fields. “We let that run for a couple of hours and then move it to a new spot,” she said.

They have also had to invest in specialized irrigation systems, to purchase more fuel for the pumps, and to transfer labor out into the fields to deal with the drought. “It’s been a big endeavor to keep the crops alive,” Voiland said, “and we’re definitely having crop loss.”

And yet, there is one silver lining: tomatoes.

“In some ways, having dry weather can be good for tomatoes,” she explained. And tomatoes are Red Fire Farm’s’ specialty.

“Dry weather can concentrate their flavor,” she said.

Places that suffer from constant drought use what is called dry farming, which cultivates crops without irrigation. Red Fire Farm has found itself using dry farming by default, not design, she said.

“But, this could be a silver lining,” she said of the more flavorful tomatoes. “And I’ve been looking for them everywhere.”

These silver linings fill wood boxes in Red Fire Farm’s main farmstand, a massive wooden-peg barn built from chestnut in 1922 after a lightning strike burned down a barn used by the previous dairy farm. That fire was the inspiration for the name Red Fire Farm.

“It’s been a big endeavor to keep the crops alive, and we’re definitely having crop loss.” – Sarah Voiland

Today, there are no cows in the barn and no hay in its upper rafters. Instead, white strings hang in the shadows of the upper beams – “That’s where we hang garlic to dry,” she explained – and vegetables and fruit color the space down below.

Red Fire Farm has 150 varieties of tomato, many of them heirloom, all organic, with names like Pink Bumblebee and Mortgage Lifter. Their colors range from a luminous green to a bruised purple. Their flavor range from sweet to tangy, and all the variations in between.

“This one is really popular at tastings,” Voiland said, grabbing a tomato called Green Zebra from a box in front of the farmstand. “It’s super flavorful. It has a depth of flavor and that tomato tang.”

Violand talks about tomatoes in the same way a lover of beer talks about microbrews.

“Some tomatoes have a light profile that makes them nice for salad or pairing with stronger flavors like balsamic vinegar,” she said. “Other tomatoes have a lot of that tang and depth that’s good for cooking down into sauces.”

Within different species, you have variations in flavor. “There can be so many tonalities, from pineapply tastes to citrusy tastes.”

She walked over to a box inside the store which held a mix of cherry tomatoes. “This one,” she said, grabbing a red oval-shaped tomato, “is a red grape, and this one,” now grabbing a round darkly-colored tomato, “is a black cherry.”

While the red grape had an even, smooth sweetness, the black cherry sparkled with a flavorful acidity.

In the box next to the cherry tomatoes are the heirlooms. “When we talk about heirlooms, we are talking about long-term varieties that people have enjoyed for generations,” Voiland said.

Increasing interest in heirlooms goes hand in hand with increasing interest in local farms.
“They don’t ship well,” Voiland explained. Major growers need tomatoes that are highly productive and durable for long hauls. “Heirloom skin,” on the other hand, “is tender, and we ripen them on the vine. They’re delicate, but they have more flavor and nutrients.”

She likes to sample several tomato varieties by slicing them in half, drizzling them with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and sprinkling them with chopped basil and salt and pepper.

“When working in the field, we eat tomatoes like apples,” she added, offering a picker’s recipe: “Grab a cherry tomato and wrap it in a basil leaf. That’s what I’m eating this time of year.”

If home gardeners want the perfect tomato, feed the soil, making “the best home for your plant,” with plenty of organic matter, “which you get in compost,” she said. You also need plenty of sun and – if you’re not in an extreme drought – water.

With all the money farmers have spent to cope with this year’s drought, Voiland said they need customers more than ever.

“All the local farms need everyone to come in droves to help us through this season,” she said.

You’ll have a chance to taste Red Fire Farm’s tomatoes at the 16th annual tomato festival on Aug. 27 at 7 Carver St., where there will be tomato tastings, live music, hayrides and lots of food from area producers.