Oliver woman is passionate about heirloom tomatoes

A tomato love affair

Did you know that there are more than 3,000 varieties of heirloom tomato plants in the world? And did you know that tomatoes come in virtually every conceivable colour and a whole slew of shapes and sizes?

Sure we've all seen the packs of grape tomatoes at the supermarket in tri-colour packs of red, orange and yellow but this is only the proverbial tip of the tomato iceberg.

Given the phenomenal number of global varieties, it seems somewhat trivial to talk about a "paltry" 400 varieties of this ubiquitous vegetable (actually a fruit according to the scientific definition).

But 400 is the number of tomato varieties that Oliverite, Stephanie Hofman has cultivated in her greenhouse at Sun Valley Farms. It's very nearly tempting to call her the "Tomato Lady" because no doubt it's pretty accurate as labels go.

Throughout much of May Hofman was selling her unique heirloom (naturally pollinated with no human intervention) tomatoes on a vacant lot on Main St. in a fundraiser for Oliver's Dance Studio Competition Squad.

At that particular plant sale, Hofman said she had around 200 varieties for sale. Who knew simply picking out some tomato plants for the garden could be so challenging?

As it turns out, you're either in the know about the plethora of tomato varieties, or you're not. There's the wise bunch of gardeners out there that know Hofman and her tomatoes well, and then there's the rest of us.

"I still get people who want the regular red tomatoes, but I'm trying to stay away from that because everybody else can grow them," she says with a chuckle. "I just want to have something unique and different."

Hofman grew up in classic Canadian farming land in Manitoba and when she moved to the Okanagan some time ago she says she worked for a farmer looking after field crops.

The farmer, she explains, had about two dozen different types of heirloom tomatoes that needed picking and this turned out to be her first fateful brush with "non-standard" tomatoes, a.k.a. tomatoes that weren't red.

"At first I was like, 'a white cherry tomato? Eww!" She says that as she picked she would try each variety when no one was looking. "I was really surprised," she laughs.

"I was programmed like 99 per cent of other people that tomatoes are only red." That personal revelation naturally led her down the proverbial tomato rabbit hole.

"A few years ago I ordered seeds from all over and I actually grew over 400 varieties. I harvested the seeds only and then I regrew them the next year to make sure they were true to what they were supposed to be."

When she was ordering the seeds she tried to get every possible colour in every size category - currant, cherry, plum, globe, beefsteak, oxheart and so on. She then went through a process of tasting and monitoring the production.

"If something didn't have a nice taste or wasn't as productive and there was a similar one and I would just turf those seeds. I just stuck with what I felt was the best of the best."

At the end of the day, she had 369 varieties, of which she estimates she now has about 340 varieties, having run out of some of the seeds.

I made a rookie mistake of asking Hofman what her favourite tomato is, to which she exhales and says "well . . ." before reeling off in rapid fire about three or four varieties for each size category of tomato. Only when a customer breaks in with a question does her cadence pause.

But I do manage to narrow down one of her preferences. "Black tomatoes have a sweetness and a really, really deep rich tomato flavour," she says with clear fondness.

She also highlights there are some tomatoes with lower acidity that are ideal for people with acid problems, like the yellow pear tomato. "I don't typically like this variety myself but for people who can't tolerate the acid it's perfect for them."

And then at the other end of the spectrum, there's the green zebra tomato which is so highly acidic they're almost spicy, she says.

And a pro tip for those growing green tomatoes - when they start to get a little bit of yellow on them, they're ripe. If the yellow turns orange, "when you bite into it you know it's going to be over-ripe."

Taking the plunge into this "new" world of tomatoes, this reporter has jumped in the deep end with half a dozen weird and wacky sounding tomato varieties including Brandywine (pink 113 gms plum), Japanese Oxheart (pink heart-shaped), Flame (56-85 gms persimmon orange colour), Thai Pink Egg (56 gms bright pink grape), Pink Tiger (5 cm striped fire engine red and gold), Chocolate Stripe (7.5-10 cm mahogany coloured with dark, Oliver green-striping).

Tune in later this summer for the results! I'm reminded by Hofman's words, "tomatoes are easy, they grow like weeds."

For more information, Hofman can be reached via her website at sunvalleyfarms.com.

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