Laurie Steele of Kellogg Farms in Sonoma County has been supplying our restaurant with tomatoes, pears, figs, green beans, and various seasonal produce for a decade now. Every year we look forward to hearing from her when her tomatoes are ripe and ready. We serve them simply to honor all the skill and attention she puts into cultivating her strains for the best flavor, color, and texture. She truly produces the best Tomatoes in California. The best.
For us it is an honor to work with farmers like Laurie. We interviewed her about her passion for Heirloom produce. Read her answers below:
How did you get started farming? I grew up in Indiana where summer corn and tomatoes are legendary. There was an organic farmer, Mr. Culver, who grew the best corn and tomatoes I ever tasted. He was way ahead of his time and I spent time at his farm and caught the bug then and there. Also, my mother was a gardener - mostly flowers - and a fantastic cook, way ahead of her time too. From her I learned the value of excellent fresh ingredients and good cooking.
I always insisted at every place I lived that I have a “piece of dirt” to grow vegetables. Mostly I was transfixed by tomatoes. They just were the thing I always wanted to grow. My backyard in San Francisco had raised beds with lettuce and chard but tomatoes were not very happy with so little sunshine. In 2000 my husband and I bought a property in very northern Sonoma County, on Mount St Helena and there were ideal conditions to really have a sizable garden. Lots of sunshine, creeks and springs, and good soil.
What core passions drive you to do this work? The turn of the seasons thrills me; watching things grow in a changing landscape is so satisfying. Growing vegetables, harvesting them - making them the best I can - getting them to chefs who have the same respect for good produce and present them simply and honestly - that makes me happy.
As a farmer, what do you think consumers need to know about your work? I am a small farmer, I do it all myself and so I care especially about the plants and the outcome. I grow my tomatoes from seed, save the seed from the best of my varieties and plant that seed the following season. It is hard work, very constant work and very unpredictable. There may be a year of rain when I can’t get plants out into the garden from the greenhouse until June, years when it is too cold to put them out, heat waves that shut the plants down, the constancy of watering through different temperatures, preparing the ground, getting the drip lines replaced every season and so on. I know every plant and every variety. I care about every tomato I plant, pick and pack. I want and hope that my chefs and consumers will have the same care and respect for every fruit I deliver. It really matters to me.
How do you personally keep yourself focused and moving forward when you face challenges at your farm? Nature rules; there is only so much I am in control of. Heat, cold, wind are all factors through the growing season. I keep my soil enriched and healthy and that has kept my tomatoes almost entirely free of bugs and pests.
What creative solutions have you come up with over the years, to produce the highest quality tomato that you are most proud of? First, I grow a cover drop in the winter to add nitrogen to the soil. I add in organic chicken manure and grape pumice, cow manure from an organic herd and other organic supplements to make the already great soil even better. We are blessed with good underground springs, and having tested the water, I know it is pure and good for the plants. Every season as I am working with the plants I taste every variety and save seeds from the ones I think are exceptional. I want some that are sweet and fruity, some that are more acid, but all with good strong taste. I like green tomatoes (Green Zebra, Green Vernisage, Limey Delight), yellow tomatoes (Kellogg Breakfast and Pork Chop), the newer varieties of black tomatoes and all the varieties of reds. Every year too I study the seed catalogues, talk to other tomato growers and go to tastings and select new varieties to try. Some I like and some I don’t. I do have a core of favorite tomatoes that I grow each year, and that will never change. And I have hybrid varieties that have popped up in the garden that are mine alone, and I keep those varieties going. And every season, during the season, I am looking ahead, planning and anticipating with excitement the tomatoes I will grow next season.
What is your take on work-life balance as a farmer? (what rituals and practices do you maintain to stay sane?) I get up very early and walk among the tomatoes - and all over the garden where I grow beans and peas and chard, kale, cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, carrots, grapes, herbs and broccoli - and have many, many roses and fruit trees as well. I attend to the plants and always, always there are weeds to be pulled! In the hot of the mid-day I usually go inside and do some cooking or reading, emailing, calling, etc. Back out at about 5, until about 8. The long days of summer are a boon. I love to take walks with my dog, watch birds, deer and turkeys, admire the trees, the sky, clouds, the beauty. Breaks from the garden make me eager to get back to it.
What exciting projects or goals do you have in the works for 2019? It is always exciting to think about the next growing season. About November, things are “finished” - plants turned under, fruit picked, drip lines taken up, cover crop sown, and for a month I can sit back and read all the seed catalogues that have poured in.
Then in January, seeds, new varieties and old favorites. are put into the soil trays and it all starts up again. Nurturing them, watching them grow to plants I can get out into the ground, I look forward to it all, always hopeful for better than the year before, always feeling optimistic.