Passion: Gardening Heirloom Tomatoes and other produce
Background: Conrad and Kathy started with a family garden when their kids were young, and have now grown into a place for their local community to come and do U-Pick produce from tomatoes to blackberries to grapes and more. Conrad and Kathy have even begun to share their passion for heirloom tomatoes with the rest of the world through their production of "Tomrad's Tomato Soups."
These “Spark the Pursuit” conversations/photo shoots are intended to be about 30 minutes. However, in typical Conrad and Kathy style, they welcomed my wife, daughter, and I for an entire evening in the garden, sipping homemade grape juice, indulging in gigantic tomato & mayo sandwiches, and walking the grounds of their beloved plot of land. You could feel the joy in their memories of raising a family in their cozy and authentic lifestyle. Conrad and Kathy’s journey from light hobby gardening to full-blown local produce seemed to develop as quickly as one tomato plant can turn into 1,100 tomato plants.
Each of these stories has highlighted the authenticity and the community of people who share in a passion, and this story is no different. As Kathy noted, when you truly love and invest in something, it naturally attracts people to come and spend time seeing what it is all about. If you get the chance to visit their garden, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. And if you find yourself in a place to purchase Tomrad’s Tomato Soup, you will be transported to a warm and inviting realm of comfort. Through Conrad and Kathy’s interview, I hope you are able to see the value of when life is fully invested in family, passion, and community.
“My dad had a big garden, and my brother and I spent many hours and many days working in that garden. So, that’s where we learned it. Then, we got away from it, and I was pretty sure I would never do it again. But, after Kathy and I got married, I decided to put some sweet corn in the backyard. Kathy had also been a gardener, so she got in on it as well… and then, we always had our little ones messing around in it.”
“With the kids, we always had a little plot of the garden for each of them. Out of our big garden, they each had a space to put whatever they wanted in there. They could be creative, and put rocks and bricks around each of their plots of garden if they wanted. Then, we would just all go out and weed our gardens together.”
“One of our sons, Jon, heard about someone who had put in a big vineyard, but they later found out that they were in a dry township. So, they were just going to tear out all of these grape vines. Jon got wind of it and said, ‘Dad, you gotta get some of these grape vines!’ So, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take three… Entire Amish families have three vines that can serve fifteen people.’ He went and took the pickup truck and got 75 plants. I told him, I’ll up it to fifteen, but you need to get rid of the rest. Those fifteen have gotten big, and produce hundreds of pounds of grapes each year. So, people come out and do the you-pick, and weigh and pay on their own. Last year, we were able to sell every last grape with people coming out.”
“Originally, Conrad started with one heirloom tomato plant that he got from a lady who was on his milk route, 20 years ago. It was an Oxheart. So, we planted it… saved the seeds... planted those seeds, and then began to realize that these were hands-down better tomatoes than anything in the store.
And then, the internet came along. Conrad spent all winter long learning how to save and use the seeds and how to get seeds from other people. We now have about 1,100 tomato plants.”
“Out of all the things we’ve grown, tomatoes have become a passion. We generally have about 70 kinds of tomatoes. We sell some plants every year to fund the expanding garden, and then the tomato soup business, which is the ultimate dream.
We keep working to get the soup business to grow bigger, then we see setbacks, and then we have to keep trying to overcome obstacles. The tomato soup is the future. I need to get it mapped out, priced, marketed, and in more stores. Then, hopefully, I could have a way to provide some opportunities for some of our family to be involved in the business.”
“The supermarket's hybrid tomatoes are made with plenty of seeds, so they can do their thing. But, who wants to eat seeds? That’s what most of them are, the wagon wheel type configuration with gobs of seeds all the way around. On the contrary, you cut one of these heirloom tomatoes open and you just have a few little packs of seeds around the edge. But the rest of it is tomato... which is what it’s supposed to be. Much fewer seeds, and a lot more tomato meat, which makes a better sandwich. You cut that thing open and you go, ‘Whoa, look at those constellations in there, all the colors, and variations.’”
“People come here to get their tomato plants for the season. People can come and just pay in the greenhouse, and go, if they want. But, we start to see the same people year after year, so we just kind of hang out with them. That’s kind of the great thing about this. We try to hang out and be around when people are here so they can stay and visit if they want. We definitely have made a community out of this. We saw someone from college that we hadn’t seen in 30 years. They came to pick blackberries one night. And then they kept coming back, because it was so fun! That’s the thing we like about this. It can run itself, but when we are around, we can just visit.”
“It’s so nice to have a reason for people to stop over. Oftentimes, all of us tend to think, ‘People are so busy, I don’t want to just stop in and interrupt.’ But, since there’s a reason to go pick a few blackberries or to go get some tomatoes out of the greenhouse, then it’s more like, ‘Well if people are around, then great, but if not, that’s fine too.’ Our place is not perfect. I can’t do that. Because, then I wouldn’t be able to enjoy people being over, I would always be looking at things to clean. I think people pick up on that. We just are who we are. It’s more like, come on over, and you’ll find out who we are.”
“As a family, we hope to start having things that we do in the orchard. As the grandkids get older, we hope to have more family days here to get things done together. We could have canning days, grape juice days, apple butter, cider evenings, etc.”
“This gives us something to talk about, to plan together, it’s at our house… we do this together. Our kids are grown and out of the house now. It’s important to find things that you enjoy doing that gives you an interest in the day. This has all the things that we like: being outside, having healthy things to eat, and being around people. It’s important to find something that puts all the things together that you enjoy doing.”