The Hunt for Grandma’s Tomatoes

Robin Loznak, Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards, tomatoes
Freshly picked vine ripened tomatoes are displayed at the Norm Lehne Garden and Orchards family farm near Roseburg.

written by Sophia McDonald photos by Robin Loznak

There’s no scientific research proving that organic fruits and vegetables taste better than conventional produce. Compare farm fresh to store-bought produce, however, and there’s a world of difference. No product proves this point more than the tomato. The on-the-vine and clamshell-clad imitators that make their way onto supermarket shelves have nothing on a fresh sun-ripened tomato.

Part of the reason for this snobbery may be that so many things can go wrong with grocery store tomatoes, said Glen Lehne of Roseburg. He recently took over day-to-day management of his parents’ farm, Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards. Tomatoes picked before they’re ripe don’t develop the same nutrients or distinctive taste. Many delicious varieties have thin skins or other properties that make them impossible to ship in the first place. Refrigerators suck out their flavor and turn them mealy.

Robin Loznak, Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards, tomatoes
Glen Lehne stands in a field of tomato plants on his family farm near Roseburg.

The other cause seems to be people’s deep-seated memory of how tomatoes are supposed to taste. “A lot of folks, particularly at the coastal markets and those who are older, they still want a tomato that tastes like grandma’s tomato,” Lehne said. The only way to get that is to grow old-fashioned varieties at home or source them in season.

Lehne and his parents, Norm and Cinda, cater to tomato connoisseurs across Southern Oregon. They grow more than fifty types on their seventy-acre farm. Lehne lists names that will sound familiar to frequent seed catalog browsers: Brandywine, pineapple, Cherokee purple, green German, rainbow, green zebra and Indigo. They also grow the more standard slicers, paste varieties and cherry tomatoes.

The reason for all these different offerings is that Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards sells to a wide range of customers—farmers’ market shoppers in Roseburg, Coos Bay, and Bandon, CSA members and u-pickers. Lehne said that over the past few years, he’s found that young people and farmers’ market customers are partial to the heirlooms. People who come to u-pick will hardly touch them.

Robin Loznak, Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards, tomatoes
Worker Lily Wheaton, 18, sorts freshly picked tomatoes.

Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards has seen its share of changes over the years to keep up with market trends such as these. When Lehne’s grandfather started the farm in 1940, he focused on nursery plants and walnuts. The Willamette Valley and California, respectively, pretty well dominated those markets by the time Norm and Cinda took over business in 1973. They pushed the farm more toward u-pick.

“When I came back to the farm, of course, the new generation has a lot of ideas,” Lehne said. He started the CSA program and made some operational changes around the farm.

“My parents used to plant with a string and a shovel,” he said. Now they have a machine that digs holes and deposits all of the farm’s starts in the ground. Lehne will start planting seeds in starter pots in January with the goal of getting the first plants into hoop houses in February. The main benefit of these plastic-covered tunnels is that they extend the growing season. Lehne said he found another big benefit the first winter after he built them. “This is a giant umbrella,” he said. “Hoop houses really shine in Oregon because the farmer can regulate the soil moisture.”

The rest of the starts go outside in April. When during the month depends on Lehne’s tolerance for frost risk. No matter where they go, the tomatoes are trellised upright so the fruit isn’t on the ground. Harvest begins in June and can last until the first October frost leaves the plants’ stems black and withered.

Robin Loznak, Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards, tomatoes
Glen Lehne drives a tractor throng and apple orchard on his family farm.

This four-month picking period gives Lehne and family a long time to remind customers what a summer tomato is supposed to taste like.

He loves seeing kids at u-pick stuffing fresh food in their mouths—this practice is encouraged—and talking to adults looking to revive the generations-old practice of extending the tomato season by canning them. “People want to reconnect with their foods,” he said. “You can do that by growing it, picking it, preserving it and enjoying it with your family.” Grandma would approve.

The Willamette Valley leads the state in tomato production. Sara Runkel with the Oregon State University Extension Office in Douglas County said that Southern Oregon has the best growing conditions. “The climate is more suited for tomato production just because we have a slightly longer growing season,” she said. “It’s hotter in the summer, and we have a wider window of frost-free days.” Douglas County leads Southern Oregon in tomato production, with thirty-five acres planted in 2013.

How Oregon’s Chefs Are Using Tomatoes

Lehne said his favorite way to eat a tomato is out of hand like an apple, or sliced and piled on a BLT. Bruschetta is a similarly classic way to use them. Chef Carlo Lamagna with Clyde Common in Portland puts a twist on this popular appetizer with his recipe for marinated tomatoes. The skins are discarded early in the process, and Lamagna recommends mixing them with salt for less waste and a delicious seasoning.

To use tomatoes in a main course, try lomo saltado from Spork in Bend. The Spork version, a Chinese-Peruvian fusion dish, is great for summer and early fall because it calls for several grilled ingredients.

Robin Loznak, Norm Lehne Gardens and Orchards, tomatoes
Freshly picked vine ripened tomatoes are displayed at the Norm Lehne Garden and Orchards family farm near Roseburg.

Although tomatoes are technically a fruit, you may not think about tossing them in a pie crust … until now. Aaron Barnett, executive chef and owner of Portland’s St. Jack, piles tomatoes in a tart shell to make a tomato tarte tatin.

“Once all of the components are made, it’s really easy,” he said. “Salt is an important part of this dish. Tomatoes are hard to season correctly. It’s always a good idea to taste a tomato after it’s been seasoned to see if you need to adjust the salt content.”

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