Dry-Farmed Tomatoes Take Center Stage
Adding no water produces more flavorful tomatoes
Though engineers outnumber farmers in today’s Silicon Valley, this bustling central California region was once a patchwork of fruit orchards and vegetable plots nicknamed the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” Martial Cottle Park keeps that agricultural heritage alive across 287 acres of trails, exhibits, and fields set in urban San Jose—and, the park showcases dry-farming techniques that produce fresh, flavorful tomatoes.
Named for the grandfather of Walter Cottle Lester, the rancher who donated his family’s four-generation farm to create the park, the destination includes 180 acres of organic farmland and a summer-season produce stand operated by Jacobs Farm. Brendan Miele, Jacobs Farm’s director of domestic farming operations, oversees the production of heirloom tomatoes, dry-farmed Early Girls, and other crops at Martial Cottle Park. He spoke with the World Tomato Society about these efforts.
World Tomato Society: Explain how dry farming works.
Brenden Miele: At Martial Cottle Park, we grow dry-farmed Early Girls. They’re planted in early to mid spring, and we don’t typically irrigate them. After transplanting young tomatoes, we rely on the last winter rains to provide enough moisture to establish the plants. If we’ve had a dry winter, we might supplement them with one or two irrigations after planting, but then the water is turned off. As that water recedes, the plants’ roots will grow down and follow it.
WTS: How do dry-farmed tomatoes differ from others?
BM: We generally have smaller plants, and those plants produce smaller fruit and fewer tomatoes per plant. But, not adding extra water during the growing season results in a much more flavorful tomato that has concentrated sugars and thicker skin. Once you’ve had a dry-farmed Early Girl tomato, you almost never want to go back to anything else. In terms of flavor, it’s the gold standard.
WTS: What are you learning through your work at Martial Cottle Park?
BM: It’s a shorter growing season there. Early Girls run for about a month before it gets too hot; at that point, they’re in season at our farms closer to the coast. They’ve been a really good crop for us at the park, especially during these last few years of drought in California. Not having to irrigate is a big plus, and it really ties in with our company focus on sustainability and great flavor. It’s not a watered-down shipping tomato. Early Girl tomatoes are grown for taste.
WTS: What dry-farming advice can you give home gardeners?
BM: Not every soil type is conducive to dry farming. The best soils tend to be the heavier ones that hold moisture. Really sandy soils tend not to work, because there is nothing there and the plants will cook. You’ve also got to be somewhere that gets enough sunshine and heat. You might get plenty of fruit in spots with morning fog, but without enough heat, few types will ripen. And, varietal section is important. Not all tomatoes will grow this way. I wouldn’t dry farm heirlooms, for example, but the Early Girl is a staple that really seems to work.