Saturday, May 19, 2007

Interview with Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms

Chez Panisse Vegetables pegs bay area tomatoes as a late summer phenomenon, but I wasn't hooked on Wild Boar tomatoes until my first taste of an Evan's Purple Plum in October of 2005. Like any self-respecting internet professional, I headed to Google to see what I could find out about the source of these intensely flavorful tomatoes. I couldn't find out much, other than that Brad Gates also sold lilacs. Of the three reference guides I have consulted, all maintain that it is not advisable to grow lilacs in the Bay Area.1

Last year, unable to find an email address to send my well wishes, I printed up the handful of blog entries I'd posted on Wild Boar tomatoes and dropped them off at Brad's farm stand. Over the months that followed we struck up an email correspondence that exposed me to several online outposts of the tomato cult, revealed that Brad had been meaning to look into the Slow Food movement but hadn't yet, and that (all my ramblings aside) terroir wasn't really on his mind."Is that a dog breed?", he asked.2

None of which is too surprising when you consider that Wild Boar Farms, and its six thousand tomato plants, are largely a one-person operation. Brad does hire one person to help him out during the picking season and has been known to bribe his kids to help out, but otherwise from January to November he's the primary care giver for all those plants. When I dropped by the farmer's market on May 19th, he described the previous work day as having started at 5am and having wrapped up at midnight. I think I replied something like,"Oof." To which he responded,"You've gotta cast your net while the grunion are running."3

This year it shouldn't be quite so difficult for folks to get the goods on Brad and his farm. He recently launched an online store for his seeds, and is hard at work on a website. He also agreed to this interview, which we conducted in April. Given how infrequently I've been able to post this spring, I suppose the editorially shrewd thing to do would be for me to break it up over a couple of weeks, but the content doesn't really lend itself to doing so. So here, in it's entirety, is my interview with Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms.

How did you get started with tomatoes?
I worked for a summer selling tomatoes for a friend at farmer's markets. I was doing landscaping at the time, because I love plants and love to be outdoors. People are not that appreciative when you do landscaping work for them but people kept thanking me for bringing them tomatoes.

Where is Wild Boar Farms located?
I farm in the Suisun Valley in Solano County. I have grown tomatoes in three counties, Napa, Yolo and Solano. Yolo is nice for real early tomatoes but to blazing hot in the summer, Napa is great for grapes but not quite as warm as tomatoes like, so my best tomatoes came from Suisun and I stayed.

The soil is unbelievable also, I grow on class I soil (the best). Places with 10 feet of topsoil are considered excellent, Suisun Valley has topsoil that is almost 100 feet deep thanks to receding glaciers that shaped the region.

Restaurants serving Wild Boar Farms tomatoes

Brad sells his tomatoes to distributors and re-sellers who supply many local restaurants. He sells directly to the following Restaurants

What do you figure the climatic variables are for the flavor of your tomatoes?
I have noticed that some varieties do good no matter if it is cool, hot or whatever. So, I may have to rely more on those varieties. Water control is also very important in tomato flavor.

You and I talked a few times about how whacky the weather was last year, in your experience is there such a thing as a typical growing season in the bay area?
I have been growing for ten years and the last two where the most challenging with last year taking the crown. Soaking rains till May and three weeks of 100-115 degree temps for three weeks straight are not what made California a produce mecca so lets hope that does not happen again for a long while.

In our conversations about what you do, you've mentioned colleagues from around the world. Is there a perception on the part of these folks with regards to climate change?
I have noticed people from other parts of the world mention odd weather. I know that in at least parts of New Zealand they did not even get summer this year. I heard of 50 something day tomatoes taking almost 100 days.

How many varieties of tomato plants do you grow each year?
I have grown 50-100 each year. Some of the varieties I am working on that are unstable may give me 50 different tomatoes, thats just from one working variety so thats a lot of tomato variables. I have made many trades from around the world this year so I am adding over 100 new trial varieties to the 100 or so I was already going to grow.

Two years ago my wife and I were all about your purple plum tomatoes. Last year it was the Berkeley Tie Dye. Do you find that a given variety changes much from year?
There are so many variables that, yes, the flavor can even change day to day. But there are other factors, like when you first tried Evan's Purple Plum I think it may have been late in the season, well that variety hangs on the vine well late season and takes on a rich flavor that usually only shows up in October. It's is a stand out flavor that very few have ever experienced. Berkeley Tie Dye does great mid season but does not like to much cool weather and does not hang on the vine so I have learned to plant different varieties at different times.

Do you have a personal favorite?
Too many good tomatoes, well, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye.

You turned me on to, and you recently began selling your seeds online. How has the internet influenced what you do?
There is a lot to learn from a cult tomato group like Always hearing about new varieties, seeing how people react to your varieties, sharing varieties around the world, endless ideas.

As near as I can tell, you and other members of the tomato cult gather for a mid-summer tomato tasting. Can you describe the sorts of tomatoes that show up at these events?
Actually I have missed my local tastings because they have been held on Saturday's. Every Saturday is spent selling tomatoes. So this year I am offering to have the tasting at my garden on a Sunday so I can go.

You've described a few of your varieties as being basically unique. I'm thinking of Brad's Black Heart and the various 'furry' tomatoes. Can you describe the process of arriving at these one of a kind tomatoes?
A lot of them have been lucky finds which I attribute to growing tens of thousands of plants and actually being the one going up and down the rows doing the work to notice them. Once you find something unique with a lot of plants to choose from you can get some pretty bizarre looking tomatoes, the key is selecting for flavor to go along with that unique look.

Places you can buy Wild Boar Farms tomatoes:

In addition to yourself, I'm a big fan of Prather Ranch, Lagier Ranches, and County Line Harvest. Are their other farmers whose work you admire?
That's a tough one, because I do not get a chance to really get to know to many other farmers and see what they are about. Probably the smaller they are the more I admire them. The bigger they are, the more likely they are to promote bad labor practices and unfair pay for hard core work. The one employee I have I pay almost twice minimum wage which is a lot more then anyone else I know in this business. I admire anyone actually doing the farming.

Anything else you'd like to say?
Support small farmers - buy local and in season for the best tasting, most nutritious produce.


At the very least, growing lilacs here is considered challenging. Sunset's Western Garden book refers to the Bay Area as Zone 15, and says it is possible to grow them here despite their preference for decidedly chilly winters. In addition to the climatic challenges posed by our mild winters, Sunset also warns against leaf miner, scale and stem borer. Brad agrees that conditions are not optimal, but maintains that, "If you grow lots of varieties and lots of plants you will get some nice blooms." It's worth reinforcing that this philosophy isn't so different from how he approaches tomatoes.

2 Compare this to the folks at Knoll Farms, who promote their brand of 'organismal' farming under a folksy abstraction of terroir ( Tairwa´).

3 An informal survey of several friends and family members suggests that, particularly in the context of agriculture, this is a relatively obscure reference. I'll provide a link to the Wikipedia entry for grunion and let you draw your own conclusions. However, I will also take a moment to point out that Brad has a particular way with words. One weekend he brought several mature Tomato Horn Worms with him to the Farmer's Market. In response to multiple squeamish inquiries, he offered up,"I usually just squash them, these worms don't have it so bad - making the trip down to Oakland and getting to spend time with all of you nice people."