Preface to the Second Edition

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 40 years of my life doing other things.

Most of the chapters of this book are free-standing essays written over the past 12 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 24 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. “What’s in a Seed” 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 year 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 of 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.

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.

—from the preface

“At first I mistook it for a woodchuck, though one of such massive girth that it might have dined on my entire previous season’s crop of butternut squash, or else was a holdover from the Pleistocene megafauna of some ten or fifteen thousand years ago when oversized mammals roamed the land. But soon I noticed that the beast, which was backed up against a hedgerow and clearly in a defensive posture, had a tail the size and shape of a squash paddle. It suddenly occurred to me that I was staring into the eyes of a beaver.”

—from “A Beaver before Breakfast