Tomatoes with actual taste are now in season
Seven years ago, my husband and I gave out seed packets of Mewaldt’s “Homesweet” tomatoes at our wedding. Wrapped in blue ribbon with pictures of big, red fruit on the wrapper, the seeds were initially popular with the tomato-growing, New-Jersey-residing faction of our family. But in the years that followed, our East Coast relatives would make both passive and overt digs at the seeds, claiming that they “just didn’t grow.”
In our desire to give our family the best, we overlooked a key characteristic of Mewaldt tomatoes. They’re not for New Jersey, the East or the Midwest. They’re not even for California. They’re for Nevada, specifically Northern Nevada.
In spite of—or maybe because of—the high desert climate that they were bred for, Mewaldt tomatoes are impossibly sweet, aggressively juicy, and highly adaptable to limited water, arid temperatures and local disease.
But the harvest didn’t happen overnight. After Bill Mewaldt quit his job as a biology professor 15 years ago to become a full-time farmer, he and his wife, Korena, spent just as many years working to achieve “balance” on their 10-acre property in Fallon.
“My deal is that I’m going to let nature take its course,” said Mewaldt. “When I first started farming, squash bugs were always in my squash, and they were a problem. I used to try poisoning them with supposedly organic poisons, but I was killing bees, so I stopped.”
Now Mewaldt uses a variety of organic farming techniques to work with—instead of against—the ecology on his farm. He grows tomatoes, squash, basil, parsley, sunchokes and garlic—using crop rotation, soil amendments and integrated pest management.
“I don’t have squash bugs anymore, I can’t find squash bugs anymore,” said Mewaldt. “They’re around but [there is] something about my property—maybe it’s the lizards eating them, the praying mantis eating them. We don’t know.”
In addition to making room for insects and microorganisms (“the good guys”) and eschewing pesticides (“poisons”), Mewaldt’s success with tomatoes also has a lot to do with selection.
“I’m basically working on resistant varieties,” he said. “For instance, our Roma tomato, I named it Korena’s Roma—that’s my wife’s name—she planted, like, 50 Roma plants out in our back garden and that year 49 of them died. But one plant was just big and green and happy and wasn’t invaded, nothing happened. So that’s the one that formed the basis for our Korena’s Roma.”
Over the years, the Mewaldts have selectively bred Cherokee Purples, Big Rainbows and—our favorite—Homesweet tomatoes (now called “Farmsweet” as a protective measure against Monsanto’s practice of patenting varieties).
Other tomatoes don’t work out. Brandywines—a variety that grows well in New Jersey—taste like “a big sack of juice, and not even good juice,” according to Mewaldt.
Those varieties that do make it through the selection process land in upscale restaurants like 4th Street Bistro and Campo as well as the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, which is basically ground-zero for the rest of Mewaldt’s produce. They also carry seeds—which I hear make great gifts.