Tomat-u-cation: Working at the Whaley Family Farm

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Unemployment is unfun.  While some may consider it a vacation, when there’s absolutely nothing to fall back on, it’s nothing but days of perpetual stress and despair.  Wondering if or when the phone will ring with the promises of the ever-elusive job interview; wondering where the next dollar is going to come from; wondering which is more important: gas or electricity; wondering if one should start packing in case that eviction notice will be served in the next few weeks…  Blech.  I’m hoping something pans out in the next couple of weeks so that I can feel human again, knowing there will be money coming in so I can keep my tiny little cave of an apartment.  I hate feeling this stressed and anxious all the time; it’s not good for my body and certainly not good for my soul.

So when my former choir mate, Milt, asked if I could help him with some tomato harvesting and packing on his farm last week, I jumped at the chance.  I needed a day off from the daily pressures of life and I couldn’t think of a better way to escape than spending a day surrounded by my favorite fruit-mistaken-for-vegetable: the tomato!


As you might have read in my post for the most recent challenge of Project Food Blog, I have a serious tomato addiction.  From offering former co-workers extra admin help or even a few quarters if they had a tomato on their person when I was faced with none for lunch, to suffering through inferior canned tomatoes during the winter just to get my fix, I have a serious problem when it comes to these fruits.  Yes, they are good for me, but really… an obsession that severe cannot possibly be healthy for anyone.  So, spending a day at a real tomato farm could be viewed as a sort of immersion therapy: getting me close to the source of my obsession in the hopes of decreasing said obsession.  Sorta.

I met up with Milt last Friday and we ran a few errands before heading to his farm, including a brief stop at the Elverta Market to buy some fresh eggs and check out some insanely adorable baby chickens (a couple of which I was tempted to stuff in my pockets to take home).  The Whaley Farm is situated just outside of Sacramento in a small Sutter County town called Pleasant Grove.  Here, suburbia gives way to quieter, rural roads, and soon enough you’ve escaped to an area where life is enjoyed at a slower pace and the simple things that the Earth bequeaths upon us are the most enjoyable.  The air is cleaner, there’s no noise; it was definitely the refuge I was seeking.  A quick tour of the farm revealed three separate gardens that boasted a large variety of beautiful produce, from cucumbers, zucchini, okra, and pumpkins, to peppers, melons, basil, culantro (not cilantro!), and, of course, tomatoes.

Working at the Whaley Family Farm

Milt is well-known in this area for the incredible variety of heirloom tomatoes he grows and provides to some of Sacramento’s best restaurants.  From Purple Russians to Green Zebras, Ceylons to the teeny, tiny currant tomato, his farm has them all.  They’re organic and 100% delicious, so much so, that Milt recently placed in Kendall-Jackson’s Heirloom Tomato Festival for some of his pink and purple beauties.  Some of these, like the Japanese Black Trifle, which I’d never seen before, absolutely blew me away by their lovely colors, incredible textures, and of course, their flavors.  I already felt like I’d earned a lifetime of education within the first hour of being introduced to some of the lesser-known tomato varietals.  And then I got to learn what goes on behind the scenes of an actual tomato farm.

I started off by working where Milt felt I’d be most comfortable: the kitchen.  Because his farm produces so many tomatoes, some of which aren’t always customer-worthy in terms of aesthetics, Milt processes some of these into tomato juices and sauces.  He had a giant kettle of tomatoes ready to be turned into juice, so he had me process them through a food mill to get rid of the peels and seeds, which would go towards a wonderful compost pile situated on the eastern side of the farm.  The end result of all that milling?  Pure, delicious tomato juice that can be used in a variety of ways, from the simple refreshing drink to the lovely fresh-from-the-garden gazpacho that I couldn’t resist whipping together.

Working at the Whaley Family Farm

Next, I worked on packing recently harvested cherry tomatoes for a delivery that was to be made the next day.  Taring out scales, weighing individual baskets, and a lot of calculator math is involved in the first part of this process.  Then comes the fun, and admittedly difficult part for me: packing.  Seriously, Poor Girl?  Putting several little cherry tomatoes in a beautiful rainbow of colors is hard to do?  YES!!!  Because while my job was to pack them, all I wanted to do was eat them!  Fortunately, I got my fix with the “splitters” – the smaller, riper cherries whose skins split because they can’t hold up to the weight of the other tomatoes on top of them.  Some splitters went toward the compost pile or for a nice treat for the goats; the others went right in my mouth.  After a short cuddle session with Yoda (one of the family cats) and a quick, gentle spray of water to wash off the farm dust, these pretty little baskets of cherry tomatoes are ready to go.

The rest of the day was filled with chopping up more “rejects” for sauces and juices and picking a couple of baskets of more lovely little cherry tomatoes, after which I was invited to stay and join Milt & his family for a nice dinner.  I was sent home with a bottle of delicious local Cabernet and a giant bag of my own heirloom tomatoes, which, of course, I turned into that fabulous arrabbiata sauce that helped me advance to Round 5 of Project Food Blog (woohoo!).

Tomato leather

I was asked to come back & help this week and worked on some of the same tasks, as well as new ones like dehydrating tomatoes for some delicious “fruit leather”.  We tried a new spicy tomato juice recipe, using some of Milt’s cilantro (a distant cousin of the more famous cilantro) and some insanely spicy tiny orange peppers, which I believe might be tepins, but I’m not 100% sure.  Regardless, they pack quite a punch on the heat scale and made this juice something V8 could only dream of being!

I’ll be helping Milt for the rest of the harvest season on a part-time basis, pickin’ more ‘maters, cooking up random dishes, and making deliveries.  It’s been a wonderful experience thus far and I’m truly grateful to Milt & his family for opening up their hearts and home to me during an otherwise gloomy time in Kimberland.  And if the photos I’ve shared so far weren’t enough to convince you that working in such a place can be both inspiring and calming at the same time, here’s a li’l slideshow of some of my favorite shots for you to enjoy.

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