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High on Dry

Quetzal Farm's tomatoes are light on water and big in taste By Stett Holbrook

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DON'T ADD WATER Kevin McEnnis planted dry-farmed tomatoes and way to tread lightly on the earth and distinguish himself in a crowded marketplace. The flavor was a bonus.
  • DON'T ADD WATER Kevin McEnnis planted dry-farmed tomatoes and way to tread lightly on the earth and distinguish himself in a crowded marketplace. The flavor was a bonus.

Kevin McEnnis planted drought-tolerant crops before it became popular.

In 1999, McEnnis founded Quetzal Farm on 10 acres off Llano Road, on the fertile plain of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. As a young farmer who saw the effects of poor land stewardship and unsustainable agriculture in Guatemala (the quetzal is the country's national bird and monetary unit), he settled on dry-farmed tomatoes because he wanted to grow crops that treaded lightly on the earth and weren't overrepresented in the market. The fact that they are so delicious was a bonus, he says.

Fifteen years later, he's one of the few dry-farmed tomato growers in the North Bay. The Early Girl tomatoes he grows seem to thrive in western Sonoma County's cool, coastal-influenced environment. He and partner Keith Abeles also grow dozens of varieties of chile peppers, herbs, onion, squash and lemon cucumbers—but those crops are irrigated.

While Quetzal is increasingly known for chiles, it's the tomatoes that stand out for me. Dry-farmed tomatoes are small and thick-skinned; they grow to little bigger than a golf ball and need little or no water. Just as grape vines that struggle for nutrients produce superior quality grapes, tomatoes that must dig deep for water yield uncommonly delicious fruit. The roots travel deep to look for groundwater and do a good job of taking advantage of rain or moisture from fog. But McEnnis, whose day job is at Flowers Vineyard and Winery, admits that he's unclear on how tomatoes thrive without irrigation. "It's a little bit of a mystery," he says.

A dry-farmed tomato's flavors are concentrated and more sweet than acidic. The juice has a thicker, syrupy quality than irrigated tomatoes. I know this because after I bit into one off the vine and it squirted all over my hand, the juice became very sticky. I haven't read a lab analysis, but I'd bet the glutamate levels are concentrated as well. Glutamate produces the meaty, salty flavor known as umami, or "deliciousness." It's highest in the gel-like substance around the seeds, so don't discard that stuff as some recipes say to do.

The downside of dry-farmed tomatoes is the yield. An irrigated field of tomatoes can produce as much as 40 tons per acre. With dry-farming, that figure is about one ton. And because Quetzal Farm is organic, it loses a lot of its crop to pests and diseases, such as the spotted-root virus that has blemished some of this year's tomatoes. That's why they sell for about $5 a pound. But they're worth it.

Abeles, who joined McEnnis as a partner in 2005, says farm-market customers have become experts in selecting dry-farmed tomatoes; the best are smaller in size and a duller red.

"I call those customers squirrels because they dig like this," he says as he pantomimes a bushy-tailed rodent digging through a pile of acorns with its front paws to get at the best ones. "The uglier the plant gets, the better they become."

If you want some tomatoes, you'd better act fast. The season could be over before Halloween. Quetzal Farms sells at Whole Food Markets in Sebastopol and Mill Valley, and the Berkeley Saturday farmers market. The intensely flavored, air-dried tomatoes are also available at Healdsburg Shed.

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