Tomato season has well and truly kicked in and it’s a big one!
Tom Armstrong is the fifth generation to farm on his family’s property in Coopers Shoot. The land has been in the Armstrong family since 1880 when his ancestor arrived from Ireland to knock down Big Scrub and establish a dairy farm, which was the first in the area to supply to Norco. Since then it was a cattle farm, until 25 years ago Tom’s parents set aside land to raise tomatoes.
Tom grows heirloom varieties including Beef Steak and Black Russian, as well as gourmet and cherry tomatoes.
When asked why his family decided to diversify with tomatoes, Tom laughs, ‘I’d say no one else was crazy enough to do it. There are serious ups and downs, and I’d say they saw a gap in the market’.
Tom also grows cucumbers, zucchini and eggplant. ‘I wanted to focus on the heirloom varieties. Last year I also grew capsicum, but thought that was quite difficult, so this season I focused again on tomatoes, but now with so many, I wish I grew more capsicum! That’s just the nature of agriculture, there can be too little or too much’.
Originally the Armstrongs sold to supermarkets until they realised this wasn’t feasible, so aligned with other local growers to establish our beloved farmers’ markets.
‘Supermarket tomatoes are picked green and kept in cold storage, they are then trucked and gassed with ethaline to ripen, it’s no surprise they then lose their flavour.’
‘They are also often hybrid varieties. Heirloom are pure-bred and their taste is original, and of course the longer they are on the vine the better they taste.’
They now sell only in the farmers’ markets, picking the tomatoes the day before. Tom has established a production process where he can deliver fresh, locally-grown, quality tomatoes year-round.
Right now is peak time for tomatoes, and this year they have an overabundance. This is owing to a number of factors: the relatively low rainfall, consistent temperatures and lots of on-farm maintenance.
As we speak Tom is looking at the tonne of tomatoes he is packing to take to Mullum Farmers Markets tomorrow. ‘It’s lucky mum is a gun at the markets, she just has a gift. We also reduce prices for bulk purchases of those that are a little more ripe, and we definitely encourage local chefs to come down to pick up their supplies’.
Tom aims for zero waste where possible and gifts surplus to Liberation Larder.
Coopers Shoot Tomatoes is at New Brighton Farmers Markets Tuesdays, and Mullumbimby Farmers Markets Thursday, 7–11am.