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Richard Tanner bites into a fresh tomato. (Facing page) Cherry tomatoes remain a popular item.

 

Bringing Back the Old Varieties

Richard Tanner finds his niche for heirloom tomatoes and peppers at Tanner Farm

By Lacey ThackerPhotography by Matthew Martin

On a Tuesday morning in mid-July, Richard Tanner and his family are in the truck headed to Little Rock from Rison, where their farm is located. They’ve got 300 families and several restaurants expecting deliveries. In the next couple of weeks, Tanner Farm will take a break before gearing up for the fall tomato season. When I call, Tanner immediately launches into friendly conversation about the day’s plans, after first introducing me to the ladies in the vehicle: his wife, Mollie, who he calls the farm boss, and daughters, Julia and Reagan.

Richard Tanner bites into a fresh tomato. (Facing page) Cherry tomatoes remain a popular item.

Richard Tanner bites into a fresh tomato. (Facing page) Cherry tomatoes remain a popular item.

Tanner, like so many Arkansans, grew up in the garden. “I’ve been growing tomatoes all my life. I was my mom’s garden helper when I was a kid, but my family grew row crops.” His grandfather owned a plantation over in Mississippi, where Tanner remembers visiting and watching in amazement at the work they’d put into the several thousand acres. His uncle farmed down in Pine Bluff, right off the river. 

After several years in construction and crop dusting, Tanner wanted work that would let him be close to home and his growing children. “I said, let’s just do what we know to do—start farming and sell it on the side of the road,” Tanner recalls. Soon, they met Steven Burrow, who quickly introduced them to Peter Brave. He credits both with helping guide them during their first years in business. “Peter Brave has taught us everything we know about heirloom tomatoes, just to tell you straight up. We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

Growing exclusively heirloom varieties on any kind of scale is rare enough, but, due to a grant from the USDA that pays for farmers to become certified organic, Tanner is also in the final phases of seeking organic certification for the north half of the farm. The rest of the land is in transition and will be converted over the next several years. “Between farmers that have helped us, the National Resources Conservation Service writing the conservation activity plan for us, and Peter teaching us what chefs are looking for in an heirloom tomato, that’s what’s guided us in this direction,” he said.

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And Tanner is working to encourage other farmers to move to heirloom varieties as well, but notes they’re often wary due to disease that’s built up in the soil, as heirlooms are generally considered less disease tolerant. This year for the first time, they were able to convince a farm they coordinate with for FarmBox2Family to plant ten thousand extra heirloom tomatoes. “He called me and said, ‘Richard, I’m absolutely amazed. We looked out in our field and half our market tomatoes were wiped out, but our Cherokee Purples are right there in the middle and they’re absolutely beautiful.’” Because of that success, Tanner believes there will be a stronger resurgence of heirlooms over the next few years.

As we talk, tomato varieties roll off Tanner’s tongue like they were his native language. “Black Krim, my favorite, Green Tiger, Bradley…” Occasionally, he pauses to ask his wife which tomato he’s thinking of. Though Mollie has only been involved since they married three years ago, she already plays a key role in managing and working the farm. If a trial farmhand can’t keep up with her by the end of the first row, they’re asked to leave.

While tomatoes have been their main crop since the beginning, they’ve recently moved into peppers. Tanner says he enjoys eating them even more than tomatoes. The next thing I know, he’s describing his favorite ways to cook them. Gouda stuffed, wrapped in bacon, and smoked on the grill? Yes, please. 

As for what makes his peppers a cut above? Unlike peppers from the store, which Tanner calls either too bland or too hot, “The colors, flavor, they’re just better all the way around. We’ve got a lot of old Italian varieties like the Cortes, Marconis, a lot of poblano types of varying colors. We were really looking for a lot of thick walled frying-quality peppers.”

This spring, the family went to Missouri to pick up a couple of new greenhouses. Before leaving, they asked a family that works for them if they’d mind starting pepper seeds. Mollie, ever organized, left everything they’d need, including labels. When the Tanners returned home, they found all ten thousand trays planted—and every single one labeled “Peppers.” Unfortunately, there are only subtle differences between many of these peppers; many of them are even shaped the same way. Telling them apart as they grow is nearly impossible.

The solution? Make lemonade. They’ve created what they call “Mollie’s Sweet & Heat,” a mystery mix of peppers that’s a surprise every time. It’s been so popular with chefs that they’re thinking of doing it again next year.