By LEE SVITAK DEAN
Minneapolis Star Tribune
It's the bruschetta phase of summer for Ariel Pressman, which makes him a happy farmer. He stands in his field with row upon row of tomato plants, like a backyard gardener who got carried away. Fifteen rows of tomato plants, in fact, each 300 feet long. By the end of the season, he expects to harvest 1,000 pounds per bed, if the weather cooperates.
That's two-thirds of an acre of summer's favorite vegetable, only part of his 40-some crops on the Clear Lake, Wis., leased property he calls Seed to Seed Farm. You'll find him talking tomato and more on Saturdays at his booth on the plaza at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis.
Pressman, 28, is in his third year of farming on his own. His story -- city kid becomes farmer -- has, surprisingly, become familiar in the past decade. His version: Grew up in Philadelphia, went to college in Massachusetts where he studied social cognition, and then landed an office job that didn't make him happy. Maybe it was his mother's big garden that nudged him into farming. He doesn't know for sure, but two internships tilling the soil (in Vermont and Osceola, Wis.) convinced him that he wanted to work the land.
Some of the organic vegetables he grows -- a little bit of almost everything, from peppers to beets and radishes, celery and herbs to kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and fava beans -- are divvied up among members of his CSA (community-supported agriculture) who get weekly allotments. ("I like doing some random interesting stuff for the CSA," he said.) Cabbages go to the Minneapolis public schools' lunch program. Other produce lands in the kitchen of Twin Cities restaurants and, of course, customers at the farmers market who can't help but be charmed by his straw hat and friendliness.
Perhaps it helps that he likes tomatoes. "I have to admit that it's harder to grow crops I don't like to eat," Pressman said. Then again, he didn't like asparagus until he grew it. Same for Brussels sprouts. Now he's a fan of both.
As the harvest season gets rolling, he and his interns walk the rows of tomato plants three times a week, looking for what's ready to pick. His preference is to reach for those not fully ripe so they land on the dinner table in better condition. Picked any later and they may become bruised or mushy by the time they are served. In a kitchen, perched on a window sill, they should ripen in three to five days.
As with grapes, tomatoes do better with less rain, when their flavor is more concentrated, which has made this an interesting summer. Too much water and they taste of it, much as supermarket tomatoes do. "It's why people like cherry tomatoes. There's so much punch in them," he said.
It's the heirloom and unusual varieties in all their unexpected colors, shapes and sizes that get him excited, though these are the most unpredictable to grow. Brandywines -- plump and juicy -- await their role in BLTs.
"Quite a lot of people in the know say it's the best tomato," said Pressman.
And there's the Green Zebra, much smaller and wearing its name. Japanese Black Trifle, Nebraska Wedding (supposedly so good it was a traditional wedding gift) and Cherokee Purple all have a spot in his field, as does Cosmonaut Volkov. "A lot of the darker heirlooms originally are from the Russian area. If it can survive in the Ukraine, it can survive here," he said.
The thing about heirloom tomatoes -- and many homegrown ones -- is that they are not perfect in appearance. They have funny shapes and scars. Customers may balk at a mark on a tomato, but chefs don't. "They know a little scar doesn't matter," said Pressman.
These days, the Midwest feels like home for him. "For local food, there is no better place to be than here for a farmer," he said. That's 75 minutes from the Twin Cities, where cooks are familiar with CSAs and food co-ops -- and there are plenty of restaurants. "I can cold-call a chef and find interest in my produce."
Just don't ask him for recipes. "A farmer is not necessarily a cook," he said with a laugh.
For information on the farm, go to www.seedtoseedfarm.com.