Tomato City: Grower offers cornucopia of heirloom plants for home gardens

Mike Youds / Kamloops Daily News
May 8, 2012 01:00 AM

Laughing Swan Farm owner Shirley Wells grows a wide variety of tantalizing tomatoes in her garden just east of the Rivershore golf course.

Tomato planting time is a couple of weeks away, an opportunity to add some variety to the home garden and the diet.

A tip about a local source of San Marzano tomato plants - San Marzanos being a world favourite for sauce - pointed in the direction of Kamloops Farmers Market.

That's where I met Ken and Shirley Wells, who run Laughing Swan Farm, a few minutes east of Rivershore Estates along the South Thompson River.

The couple had film industry careers in the Lower Mainland before they opted for a change of lifestyle; she was a camera assistant, he was a paint co-ordinator on sets.

A visit to their farm revealed a labour of love in Shirley's garden. They initially bought property near Tobiano, but the locale wasn't so well suited to growing.

"This is the perfect place for us," she said. "To us, it's gone from a milltown to a cosmopolitan town. There's great weather most of the time and we're in a heat trap on the South Thompson River, with a south-facing silt bluff behind."

You won't find heirloom tomatoes listed on their website. That's a discovery awaiting those who stroll past the market stalls on Saturday mornings.

"We do the farmers market because we like people - it's fun," she said.

As it turns out, her commercial growing niche is ornamental grasses. She markets the grasses, along with perennials, shrubs and trees, wholesale to professional landscapers. They've also added annuals, herbs, edible flowers and seeds to their line.

Her farming roots run deep, though, and tomatoes figure prominently.

"I grew up in Heinz country in Sacramento (Calif.)," she explained, recalling the influence of the U.S. based foot giant, its "57 varieties" of tomatoes and the recipes from the kitchen of Mrs. Heinz.

At the six-hectare farm - named after the trumpeters that over-winter on the river nearby - she grows 26 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, open-pollinated cultivars that are becoming increasingly popular. She collects seeds from a variety of sources (including Kamloops Garden Club's Seedy Saturday event in February), ferments and sells them as well.

To the culinary sleuth - "foodies" as they're sometimes called - this represents a cornucopia of flavours, colours and textures. To the home grower, it's a tantalizing delight to find these varieties just weeks away from planting time.

"Why am I big on tomatoes? I like different tastes," she said. "I don't like having the same thing all the time. There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes. Also, tomatoes are easy to grow here in Kamloops. It was (historically) the tomato processing and growing centre of the Interior."

Competition from south of the border led to the closure of canneries here. Of 15 plants that operated in the early 1950s, only one remained by the 1980s. It was part of the same trend that reduced food processing from being the province's No. 3 industry to a shadow of its former self.

The climatic advantage, however, remains, and the Wells along with other area growers are taking advantage of renewed interest in heirlooms as a specialty crop.

Tomatoes, of course, are not only flavourful and versatile - heck, they're practically a staple in some cultures - they're also nutritionally rich, a source of vitamin C, plus antioxidants beta-carotene and lypocene. A bright red pigment and phytochemical also found in carrots and watermelons, Lycopene has been linked to the cancer-preventing qualities of tomatoes. The redder the fruit, the higher the level of this antioxidant.

Southern Nights, a Russian heirloom, is Wells' favourite variety.

"It reminds you of sitting on a hot porch in Atlanta, Georgia," she said with a southern accent.

A few others: Wapsipinicon Peach comes from the valley of the same name in Iowa and its skin resembles the fiery hues of a ripe peach. Oxheart Red, as the name suggests, is heart-shaped and a brilliant crimson when ripe. Cherokee purple offers rich, smokey flavour.

Though tomatoes are not her primary crop, she's been active with the fruit on a community level. As a member of the Thompson-Shuswap Chef Farmer Collaborative, she helped organize the inaugural Kamloops Tomato Festival last year. The festival returns to the farmers market Sept. 15.

Starting this year, Laughing Swan Farm is open to the public on Sundays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., by invitation: "If you want plants, you're invited."

© Copyright 2015 Kamloops Daily News

Email to a Friend


Popular Kamloops News