May 2005

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Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference 2005 Staff Reflections, Part II


Community Calendar

Voss Organics
Delicious Tomatoes from an Inventive Local Farm

by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager

Taking root on Madison’s north side, Voss Organics challenges most notions of farming except for the sweet fruit of their yearly harvest. Growing in their hoop-house and on approximately 3,000 square feet of their own MOSA-certified organic lawn, the heirloom seedlings and tomatoes headed for the Willy Street
Co-op benefit from a healthy, local growing cycle and an unusually short trip to market. By re-engineering the use of the front and back yards, this city farm uses a plan designed to take full advantage of growing vertically to make up for a lack of horizontal space.

Starting a city farm
Mark Voss—father, farmer and high school teacher—has farmed on more traditional, rural soil but has never owned his own farmland. When he and his wife Michelle began their search for rural property in 2001, the economy had outpaced them as it does many aspiring farmers, so the couple settled on a house within the city limits and had to rethink their farming plans. Undaunted by the challenge and with careful attention to detail from seed to staking, the Vosses have carried on their passion for growing heirloom tomatoes by whatever means necessary.

So many varieties
When asked for his favorite variety, Mark professes his love for tomatoes with the passion of a chocoholic. With a sudden sparkle in his eyes, he quickly lists more than seven varieties. His favorite serving style, he says, is “on a platter with little accompaniment to enjoy them each for their subtle flavors and textures.” After some thought, he finally settled on the Rose De Baron as his favorite “red” tomato because of its beautiful shape “It’s like you take a perfect ball and take the top and bottom and press it just a little bit, so it’s just a little bit shorter than a perfect sphere, and, for me, that’s the perfect tomato shape. It has a thin skin and the most beautiful pink flesh, so it’s very aesthetically pleasing to the eye and the flavor is just delicate. It doesn’t hit you over the head with tomato flavor; it has these nuances of a lot of different flavors that are not typical tomato flavors. So it’s complex flavor that you can very simply appreciate,” Mark described.

Searching for seeds
Historically, farmers and growers have relied on seeds saved from each harvest to propagate the next season’s crop. All of Mark’s seeds, however, have to be purchased yearly. Because of the close growing conditions in the yard, Mark admits it would be difficult to guarantee that his harvested seeds haven’t accidentally crossed with another variety on the small farm resulting in an altered species. Some organic heirloom tomato seeds simply do not exist or are extremely hard to find, so Mark practices due diligence in finding organic sources and purchases organic seeds whenever they’re available in accordance with organic guidelines.

It’s in the mix
The life of a tomato begins with the seed, but equally important to the continued health of each plant is a soil mix that provides ongoing nutrients throughout the season. “The key is to get a good compost as your base,” Mark says. “I have a mix that I learned about at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference from a guy named John Biernbaum from Michigan State University. Pete moss, compost, vermiculite and Perlite, those are sort of the main ingredients. Then fishmeal, kelp, rock phosphate and green sand are added. Since I’ve been using that mix, my seedlings have been so healthy.” Mark says this mix has nearly eliminated his need for later fertilizing or compost teas typically used throughout the season.

“All of this stuff is not immediately available to the plants, so when it (the mix) goes with the root-ball into the ground, it continues to be available all season long and it’s a pretty concentrated potion that they can draw on. And yet,” Mark explained, “because it’s not immediately available, it doesn’t burn it in the beginning,” which is of serious consideration when using any fertilizers on tender seedlings.

Controlling the temperature
In mid-March Mark began planting the first of his seedlings, and they sprouted to about an-inch-and-a-half in a little over a week’s time. The electric heater in the Voss Organic handmade hoop-house, assisted by several house fans that circulate the air in order to prevent mold, helps to maintain a 70º-75º, ideal growing condition. Controlling the temperature in the hoop-house is critical at this stage because, as Mark says, “The key to growing strong seedlings is, once they’re germinated, to keep it as cool as possible during the day and as warm as possible during the night. If it’s really warm during the day they’ll take that energy from the warmth and they’ll reach to the sun. If there’s no sun to reach to, then they’ll grow out instead of up.” Some use the term “leggy” when plants reach like this eagerly toward the sun. When this happens, the stems eventually cannot support the weight of the heavy fruits later on in the season.

The potting-on ceremony
The trays of seedlings are watered twice a day until they’ve germinated (sprouted) and then watered three or four times a day until being repotted in larger containers. By late March, the seedlings are two to three inches tall. At this time, Mark has the advantage of an eager and ready work crew. He says, “We do this big ‘potting-on ceremony.’ Get a group of students, invite them over and there are thousands of plants to put in pots and it’s an assembly line of some people filling and other people popping plants out of the cells and planting them. It’s nice to have students to call on because they enjoy it, and I can just call them.” Mark’s students have their work cut out for them every year as they typically have over 5,000 seedlings for sale or for planting later on the farm.

At the Co-op
The Willy Street Co-op produce department has offered Voss Organic seedlings and tomatoes for several years. The heirloom tomato seedlings will be available again this season at the Co-op, and we’re looking forward to selecting from over 20 varieties of their heirloom tomatoes later in the summer. Some of the heirloom varieties available will be: Green Zebra, Brandywine, Azoychka, Cherokee Purple, Prudence Purple, Striped German, Pineapple, Evergreen, Tigerella, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, and Mark’s favorite, Rose DeBaron.

The life of a tomato
Whether you’re a seasoned grower or have recently started growing your own, in a project with Mark Voss and the Willy Street Co-op, we plan to provide growers with a series of articles on The Life of a Tomato, from seed to table throughout the growing season. Look for monthly updates in the Reader for helpful growing hints and sustainable solutions to common problems.

For more information
For more information about Voss Organics, you can reach them, on the farm at (608) 242-8378. Or, stop by the produce aisle.