Drive east on Colorado’s Route 52 to Wiggins and it’s a straight shot. The road stretches like a ribbon for miles, slicing between corn and sunflowers, wheat and millet fields. The Rocky Mountains recede to reveal a vast sky studded with thin and wispy or puffy rain-laden clouds. This is prairie country, not where you’d expect to find beefy tomatoes, English cucumbers or pulpy sweet peppers. Or would you?
Peel down a dirt road to the home of Russell and Cindy Shoemaker. Drive to the dead end–miles from the road, miles from anything. Home and farm to three generations of Shoemakers, the original turn-of-the-century bungalow stands under trees. A second generation resides a few feet away in a ’50s ranch. Cindy and Russell built a contemporary home to complete the triangle of houses.
There’s a history to this farm that’s tied to water. “My grandfather was a dry-land farmer. My father irrigated. And now we’re back to dry-land farming,” Russell says.
Walk through a narrow passageway tucked into a long hedge and suddenly you’re confronted with greenhouses. In this quiet world only the humming fans drone noisily. The moist air slaps like a damp towel. Basking in 80 degrees of warmth, rows of tomatoes snake along in regimented fashion, tethered to poles with green, orange and red fruit trailing below leaves. Russell is harvesting cucumbers this morning, but tomatoes make up the bulk of the harvest.
“Our water table dropped,” Cindy says, “so in 1985 we decided to try greenhouse tomatoes. We saw other farmers around us going bankrupt.” Farmers surrounding the Shoemakers grow corn, wheat, sunflowers and millet. But many can grow only as dry-land farmers now. There’s not enough water underground to support irrigation and success is dependent on Colorado’s unpredictable rainfall. Russell runs a herd of 50 cattle and continues some dry-land farming but it’s nothing like his father’s generation of farming. Tomatoes looked like a good alternative. With a short growing season and the burgeoning population along the Front Range, greenhouse vegetables could compete with hothouse tomatoes and peppers coming from as far away as Holland.
HARNESSING SUN POWER IN A GREENHOUSE
“We have so much sunshine here,” Cindy says, which can be harnessed for full greenhouse production, “even so, we’re still dependent on clear skies. If it’s cloudy we won’t see as many blossoms. You won’t notice it right away but six weeks later, you’ll see a drop off in tomato production.”
The Shoemakers are growing tomatoes the size of baseballs with thin skins, small cores and juicy flesh. Peppers are thick and meaty, ranging from yellow to orange and red. Cucumbers are the English variety, long and slender with few seeds. Cindy breaks off a tomato at a joint. “We leave the calyx on. That’s an indicator of freshness,” she says. The calyx is a small green cap that fits over the base of the stem where it connects to the plant. Most tomatoes arrive in stores bare of stems because the calyx has withered away.
A greenhouse is an environment on its own—a tiny managed universe. Three small cardboard boxes house bumblebees. They come and go as they please, visiting plants year around. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers depend on pollinating insects to set fruit. Cindy points to a small yellow tomato blossom that has a slight brownish spot—a bruise, she says, where the bees have been collecting pollen.
Every few feet yellow sticky cards catch unwanted pests. The Shoemakers don’t use pesticides on their plants. So except for bumblebees, insects are not encouraged. That’s also why the plants are torn up at the end of a year. By January, Russell will be putting in new plants and waiting for them to begin fruiting. “Older plants are more susceptible to disease,” he says, “so it’s worth it to plant new each year, to sanitize everything and start over. But it does limit your production.”
Greenhouse vegetables don’t receive nutrients from soil. They’re grown in soil-less mixes of perlite, peat and vermiculite—all natural substances from the earth, but without essential nutrients that would boost the growth of fruiting vines. The farmer has to match the crop with nutrients and hover over the plants to head off any diseases, make sure the tomatoes are tethered so that the heavy fruit doesn’t break off, fertilize to exacting specifications, water judiciously and harvest at the right time. A crew of 14 harvests the dangling fruit twice a week. Then Cindy takes it to the farmers markets in Longmont and Fort Collins. It’s a three-hour drive, but the market is a direct link to the customer.
TRYING TO EASE INTO MAJOR MARKETS
Major supermarkets rarely buy from small farmers, even though the Shoemakers, on a good week, may have 6,000 pounds of tomatoes. “That’s usually in late spring,” Russell says, “really, the production changes from day to day. For eight months we pick off them.” And even 6,000 pounds doesn’t qualify as a big producer, which keeps him out of the big supermarkets. He depends on independent stores and farmers markets managed by people who look for high quality specialty produce. Cindy attends the markets because she enjoys meeting customers face-to-face, explaining what goes into the peppers and tomatoes to make them so robust.
She’s trying eight new tomato varieties, clustered and clipped all together. “The skin is too thick; they’re a little too acid for my taste,” she says disappointedly about one. Still, her customers guide the harvest. Some request green tomatoes. They want to make chow-chow, an old-fashioned preserve. Or, they love fried green tomatoes. “I can’t get past the bitter taste of green tomatoes,” she says, “but others love it.” Her favorite is a beefsteak style with a thin skin, small core and succulent flesh.
COOKING WITH TOMATOES AND SWEET PEPPERS
Antonio Laudisio, owner and chef at Laudisio’s Ristorante in Boulder prefers the smaller tomatoes. “I like the plum tomatoes better for sauces,” he says. “I cut them in half and take out all the seeds. Then I slice them up and make my sauces with that. I’m not necessarily going for Roma—it’s not a brand of tomatoes but a taste. The key is ripeness and the stem attached.
“I used to go into my mother’s yard with a saltshaker. I’d hang out among the vines, with the sun coming through the vines and leaves. It did something to my memory bank. It was the pollen. I stimulated the tomato plants by shaking them, going from plant to plant. It was the oil left on my hands that I was going for. I’m happy they are sending us the tomatoes with stems. I take the stem off and rub it in the bowl.”
Antonio is describing the calyx connected to the stem that the Shoemakers provide as a telltale sign of vine-ripened fruit. But don’t add tomato leaves. Like its cousin, the potato, both are in the nightshade family and their leaves are poisonous.
“I don’t like tomatoes cold,” Antonio says, “but at room temperature and with a lot of fresh basil. So, now, on to the peppers…they have a strong skin and a thick wall so I roast them. After roasting them on a barbeque outside, they’re black. I put them in a bag with salt. I didn’t roast them to a point where they split. After peeling off the skin—and this you can do under water–I’ve found it doesn’t matter that much if you rinse them with water providing that when you cut them you save the juice. I don’t want to waste that. I use them with an olive oil and fresh herbs in a salad.
“Or slice them and use them in a pasta dish with tomatoes, olive oil, herbs, garlic, an anchovy and attention to olive oil. It’s a very quick hit with the tomatoes. By the time the pasta is cooked, the sauce should be done. This time of the year, don’t overcook tomatoes. The cooking is just to enhance the flavors. The sauce won’t be very liquid so add a touch of pasta water. It gives some viscosity, which both thickens and extends it. With that, throw your pasta in. Don’t use cheese. Instead, grate some toasted focaccia bread on it. Add a little fresh herbs and olive oil in the beginning and a little at the end—good quality virgin olive oil.
“In this country, we tend to pick up on one thing like balsamic vinegar and use it too much. The Italians use balsamic vinegar, but not the way we do. They also use cheese, but not the way we do. On a fresh summer salad, I wouldn’t use cheese. I would use grated breadcrumbs with seasonings, a good olive oil and dribble some oil onto the wet pasta. Then add your sauce and plenty of black pepper.
“I like to walk in the farmers markets, talking to the farmers, taking in the vegetables. I like to smell the ripened fruit….really, it’s a spiritual experience for me.”
The following recipes were developed by Front Range Living. Antonio has advised us: “Don’t overcook the tomatoes.” So we’ve revised our Roasted Ratatouille recipe to add tomatoes at the very end.
ROASTED RATATOUILLE WITH PASTA
- One sweet medium-sized onion peeled and cut in half
- Three sweet peppers cored, seeded and halved
- One medium-sized eggplant cut in half
- One zucchini squash cut in half
- Five garlic cloves left in their husks
- Five medium-sized tomatoes, cut in half
- Fistful of basil leaves, any variety
- ½ cup of olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- One pound of pasta, tubular or rotini cooked according to package directions
Turn the oven on to 400 degrees. Place onion, peppers, eggplant and garlic into a roasting pan, all cut side down. Pour the olive oil over and sprinkle with kosher salt. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes or until the eggplant is soft and tender. Add the tomatoes, cut side down. Continue for ten minutes. Remove from the oven. Cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces. Turn the basil leaves, removed from the stem, into the roasted vegetables. Squeeze the garlic from their husks and they’ll melt into the sauce. Sprinkle with plenty of black pepper to taste. Cook the pasta according to directions and serve. Cheese is not necessary on this dish. Serves four as a main dish.
GAZPACHO WITH JALAPENO AND CILANTRO
- Six large tomatoes or nine smaller tomatoes, vine-ripened only, they need not be peeled or seeded
- One cucumber, seedless preferred
- ½ sweet onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and stems removed
- ½ cup cilantro, chopped to remove tough stems
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 sweet pepper, seeds and stems removed
- 3 cups water
Cut vegetables into large pieces. Puree all in a blender or food processor. Chill for several hours. Serves eight.
STUFFED ROASTED SWEET PEPPERS
- 2 sweet peppers roasted, see instructions below
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs or cubes, preferably from a French loaf, crusts may be included
- 1/4 cup flat-leaved parsley (also called Italian parsley), chopped finely
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped finely
- 1/4 medium onion, chopped finely
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or asiago cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped, roasted walnuts
- sprinkling of dried currants or minced dried figs, about three tablespoons
- salt and pepper to taste and any juice from the peppers
Roast sweet peppers by placing them under the broiler if the stove in electric. Turn them every few minutes until the skin is charred all over. If the stove is gas, place the peppers over the stove top flame; turn the pepper every few minutes to char all around. Place the peppers in a plastic bag until cool enough to handle. Strip away out skin, remove the stem and seeds, but save the juice and keep the peppers whole.
Sauté chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until wilted but not brown. Add all remaining ingredients except peppers. Stuff into the peppers and bake for 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Slice the peppers in half for four if they are large, or serve whole for two.
SHRIMP WITH SAFFRON, RICE AND PEPPERS
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 onion, minced
- 1/2 sweet red pepper, minced
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup basmati rice
- 1 cup water
- pinch saffron, powder or threads
- salt and pepper to taste
- 8 fresh shrimp, any size
- 1/2 cup frozen or fresh peas
Place garlic, onion, sweet pepper and oil in a heavy skillet or sauce pan. Sauté until the onion and pepper are limp. Add the rice, cook until the rice is coated with the oil. Add the water and saffron, salt and pepper. When water begins to boil, put a lid over the skillet and turn the heat to low. Allow the rice to cook until it is tender. If you are using fresh peas, add them at this time. When the rice is cooked through and has absorbed the water, place the shrimp on top of the rice to steam. They will curl and turn pink. If you are using frozen peas, allow them to defrost and add them one minute before serving. Serves two.
PASTA WITH FRESH TOMATO SAUCE, CAPERS AND OLIVES
- 6 medium tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 cup flat-leaved parsley
- 1/2 cup fresh basil
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 Tbs. capers
- 10 olives, Greek or Nicoise
- 1 pound pasta, any kind but penne is good for this dish
- salt and pepper to taste
Place tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil, olive oil in a food processor. This must be done in two batches. Heat water on the stove to cook pasta. Cook pasta according to directions. Add capers and olives to the blended tomato sauce, which remains uncooked. When pasta is done, pour the sauce over the pasta. Serves three generously.
RED PEPPERS WITH SEA SCALLOPS, PEAS, ONIONS, GARLIC, RICE AND SAFFRON
- 1 large sweet red pepper, minced
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 3 Tablespoon olive oil
- pinch saffron threads
- 1 cup rice (Basmati if possible)
- 2 cups water
- 8 sea scallops
- 1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas (defrosted)
- salt and pepper to taste
Add the pepper, onion, saffron and garlic to the olive oil in a heavy saucepan on medium high heat. Allow to wilt, but not brown. Add the rice and stir to coat it in the oil. Add the water, salt and pepper. Lower the heat to low and allow the rice to cook nearly done. When the rice has absorbed most of the water, add the scallops. Size will determine how fast they cook; it may be only a matter of minutes. If you are using fresh peas, add them when you add the scallops. If you are using defrosted peas, add them when the scallops have cooked through and let them warm up rather than cook.
The Shoemakers sell their produce under the name Honeyacre from Wiggins, Colorado. They can be found at the Longmont and Fort Collins farmers markets in the summer. Markets that carry their produce are Lay’s in Berthoud, Greeley and Fort Collins and Alfalfas in Fort Collins. Their telephone is 970-483-5233.