In early September, as the light shimmers intermittently with its golden autumn glow, our farmers markets are awash in colorful tomatoes.
If the weather cooperates, so it will be through October and into November. Some farmers will likely have tomatoes until Thanksgiving. If you’ve been concerned about tomatoes because of our cool and sometimes even chilly weather, worry not. It will take an early freeze or heavy rains to end the season prematurely.
This year, more than ever it seems, local tomatoes are ripening at different rates, depending on when exactly they were planted and in what microclimate. In some gardens, tomato plants are already exhausted and are sinking back into the ground while others remain tall and stately, with green fruit that has not yet ripened.
When it comes to the heavy hitters — the farmers with the largest tomato crops — one is experiencing a season much like previous ones and one got a late start.
“We started picking about three weeks later than usual,” Dan Magnuson of Soda Rock Farms in Healdsburg’s Alexander Valley said recently.
Because of mid-spring rains, Magnuson couldn’t get into the 5 acres he farms until late May, when he was finally able to get his nearly 50,000 plants into the ground. He attended his first farmers markets of the season in early August, but it wasn’t until later in the month that his widely praised heirloom tomatoes were ready.
The farm is just now hitting its stride, with all crops — including basil, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers — as well as tomatoes later than has been typical.
Magnuson focuses on 15 to 20 varieties of tomatoes, including several cherry varieties. The hybrid, Early Girl, is the first to ripen, as it is for many farmers. Among his favorites are Rainbow, Cherokee, Pink Brandywine and Orange Jubilee. He prefers tomatoes cooked, for pasta sauce and soup, but he also enjoys them chopped with fresh mozzarella and his farm-grown basil.
Magnuson himself attends the Healdsburg Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Windsor Farmers Market on Sundays. His youngest daughter, Rachel Magnuson, attends the Community Farmers Market at the Santa Rosa Veterans’ Hall on Saturday, and her sister, Katie, who is the oldest sibling, offers the family harvest at the Larkspur Farmers Market, also on Saturdays.
During the week, Magnuson delivers his tomatoes to local markets, including Shelton’s Natural Foods Market in Healdsburg; Pacific Markets, in both Santa Rosa and Sebastopol; and to Harvest Markets in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Soda Rock tomatoes are also sold in several Whole Foods Markets in the Bay Area.
Lazaro Calderon’s The Patch is typically the first local farm with ripe tomatoes, and this year’s arrived right on time, though it was the hybrids, not the heirlooms, that ripened first. For the first few weeks, there were plenty of Shady Lady tomatoes, a low acid variety, along with Early Girls and Beefsteaks.
Soon, Calderon’s favorites, Red Zebra and Old German, were ripening, along with Vintage Wine, Golden Cherokee and several other heirloom varieties. Green Zebra is the last to ripen, as it does not do well in a hothouse early in the year.
The Patch now consists of two properties, the original just east of the town square in Sonoma, and a second one in Santa Rosa. There are just over 5 acres planted with tomatoes; sweet peppers, onions, two varieties of green beans, eggplant, figs, onions, potatoes, summer squash and sweet basil among the farm’s other crops.