Kevin McCloskey is no stranger to reader’s of CS2. Kevin is responsible for the wonderful series of protest art that we continue to run of the artists of Oaxaca. He has more of these stark and powerful images in this issue with The Walls of Oaxaca. Kevin reviewed Tim Stark’s book Heirloom in our last issue. Kevin was so taken with the book that he asked Tim for an interview. This is it.
I caught up with Tim as he delivered a sack of produce to the Uptown Espresso on Main Street, Kutztown. He was driving the weather-beaten Hino diesel truck with a high cab and a 14-foot insulated cargo box. Just as described in the book, the truck bore the motto: “Eckerton Hill Farm, Home of the Tomato People.”
As I climbed up into the passenger seat, Tim apologized for the mess. “Just step on anything,” he said. At my feet lay a pile of Gourmet magazines, copy paper, receipts, and several biodegradable coffee cups. I tried to position my feet comfortably on a massive stainless steel chain. “We might need that when we get to the Bronx,” he said of the chain. Between us was a grungy brown plastic console, copies of his new book, a cell phone, checkbook, a handful of maps, and more receipts. At my left elbow was a cup holder with a half-inch of weak coffee, no cup. I am sure the coffee was weak because I could count the change at the bottom: fifty-five cents.
On the back cover of Heirloom, chef Dave Pasternack calls Tim Stark “one-fourth farmer, one-fourth storyteller, and half-mad.” Now, I would have a chance to see firsthand if the master chef had got his measurements right.
We lurched down Main Street and out of town. Picture-postcard Pennsylvania Dutch farmland begins just a mile out of Kutztown. We took a left on a winding country road leading to the small town of Bowers. Dairy cows cooled their hooves in a trout stream. A hand-painted sign on a tree announced: Miniature Horses for Sale. “Look at that corn,” Tim said. “That’s good corn.” I soon learned the man can smell sweet corn from the highway and, even at 60-plus miles an hour, is prepared to judge its quality on the fly.
I told Tim I remembered seeing some llamas along that stretch of road. He told me farmers got the llamas to protect against predators, but then the llamas tried humping the sheep, nearly killed them. He’d seen it with his own eyes. I never took animal husbandry in school; this trip was going be educational.
First stop was Meadow View Farm. Tim’s touching portrait of his friend, the Mennonite farmer who owns this land, is a highlight of Heirloom. James Weaver grabbed his straw hat and ran down the steps of his stone farmhouse as Tim tooted his horn and backed the truck up to the barn. Tim can spend over two hundred dollars a day on gas for his trucks and tractors, so he hates to drive to New York City with less than a full load. His truck was already half full with his own produce. Mr. Weaver had more bi-color corn than the local auction would bear. So the arrangement worked for both of them. Mr. Weaver used a forklift to raise a skid full of bagged corn to the truck bed and Tim began loading. I offered to help, but he waved me off. “Loading is tricky; you can help unload,” Tim promised.
I stood by the barn watching the littlest children play in the sand box. Swallows darted overhead. Off in the distance the older girls, with their white bonnets and long cotton print dresses, were tending the greenhouses. I noticed Farmer Weaver’s forklift had unusual metal treads, like a mini-tank. Heirloom had touched on the sect’s prohibition of rubber tires on tractors; apparently the rule applied to forklifts, as well.
The Meadow View Farm eggplants that day included the standard purple balloon shape, a creamy white variety that resembled goose eggs, and the long, nearly black Japanese stir-fry style. Tim suggested they should be mixed together, all in one box. Mr. Weaver shrugged, smiled and the eggplants got mixed. Later Tim would tell me, speaking of tomatoes, “Mixture, that’s my big contribution. I’m the guy who figured that out. Tomatoes look better, sell better, when you mix ‘em.”
Tim’s cell phone rang. Another Mennonite farmer up the road asked if there was a market for ground cherries in New York. “There’s a market for everything in New York,” Tim told him. “I’ll take them up if you’ve got them picked and packed, Aaron, but we’re leaving right now.” Apparently, they weren’t packed. “Next time, then,” he said, and motioned for me to climb back in the truck. Mr. Weaver waved goodbye and said he sincerely wished he could come along with us to New York. He once had a great adventure in New York with Tim, but, alas, I didn’t have time to hear his version.
James Weaver is such a close and good friend; I had to ask Tim if he was the exception among the local farmers. An incident in the book takes place at a country auction where it appeared both the auctioneer and the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers conspired against Tim as an auslander, or outsider.
“You know, I thought that at the time,” he said. “All I had back then was a shovel and my name. At the auction, I thought they were ganging up on me, but I realized since, it was a great tractor and they really wanted it, too. They weren’t bidding it up on me. They wanted it up to the end. I still have that tractor.
“We sped down a country road walled with tall corn past the point where Burkholder Lane becomes Hinterfeiter Road. Tim cursed. He slammed on the brakes, and threw the truck into reverse so he could take the shortcut by the quarry to Route 222. He swore again at the sound of the bagged corn bouncing around behind us. I apologized if my questions had distracted him. He assured me it wasn’t my fault; he’d done the exact same maneuver at the same place the day before on his way to the Greenmarket in New York City.
“I really don’t like leaving this late for the city,” he said. It was half past noon. He’d been up since sunrise. “Yesterday on three hours sleep, I left at dawn for the Greenmarket. Then, I had to leave the market twice to go to a land line. In the morning I was on Martha Stewart Living on Sirius Radio, live. In the afternoon I went to a friend’s house to talk with the book editor at Christian Science Monitor.”
He told me he was hand selling copies of Heirloom from his truck at the Greenmarket. Just like vegetables, you move them while they’re fresh.
“This time of year cherry tomatoes are boomin’. At the end of the day I stand there with the book, I call out to people, ‘Just read one page!’ Like I say, ‘just taste my tomatoes!’ People stop and read page one, and I can feel their resistance falling away. Then I throw in a box of cherry tomatoes, hell, I’ve got a ton of cherry tomatoes.
“I ask if he reads CommonSense2. He tells me he honestly doesn’t read anything during growing season, but he reads a lot in the winter. He loves Jack Lindeman’s poetry. Jack is an old family friend. Great poet, did I know he was published in The Nation? He was a helluva’ ballplayer. He wrote a long poem about playing ball during the war. Did I know he was hit by a car? I knew none of this. He must have been in his 70′s already. Woman ran into him. He went flying, shoulda’ killed him. I went to see him. I brought him a poem. I don’t write much poetry, but I wrote a poem for Jack.
We need to make a few stops in North Jersey. Tim asks me if I can navigate. When I tell him I was born in Jersey, he doesn’t ask what exit.
We crossed the Delaware River; there is no toll heading into Jersey. To my biased mind western New Jersey is prettier than eastern Pennsylvania. I decide not to share that thought with Tim. He is clearly a Pennsylvania partisan. He swears Eastern Pennsylvania has the best “terroir” for vegetables. I need him to spell and explain the term. It’s French; wine makers use it. Terroir can be translated as ‘soil’ or ‘earth’, but implies more than simply the soil’s composition. It includes the lay of the land, the microclimate, air and water quality.
He hopes someday to buy a farm in Berks or Lehigh County, but he’s not sure that will ever happen. He rents one small farm in Virginville and still plants five acres on his mother’s land in Lenhartsville, the original Eckerton Hill Farm. The two fields are only about fifteen minutes apart, but it would be so much more efficient to have ten acres in one place. He fears his dream is slipping out of reach.
“Isn’t real estate going down?” I ask. Not good farmland, he tells me. Ten acres with a livable house might cost close to a million dollars. He’s seen some farms for less, but his wife vetoed those with the most ramshackle farmhouses.
The first half hour in Jersey goes fast. Tim grumbles at some inept drivers. When he sees the New Jersey State weigh station is closed his mood brightens. With our windows down the truck was loud. After a spell, Tim turned and shouted, “Did you ask me something?” I told him no, not recently. “I’ve got an internal dialog going on,” he said, tapping his head. “Sometimes I don’t listen.”
There was no radio. I asked him if he would be talking to himself if I wasn’t in the truck. He smiled, “Well, yes. I sing sometimes or talk fake Pennsylvania Dutch to keep myself awake.” I told him I’d like to hear that; he shook his head no.
“In your book you never refer to your college by name. Is that your preference?” I asked.Shrug.”Is the Princeton alumni office hounding you?” I asked.
“Okay, I went to Princeton, but I was recruited as a wrestler ; I’m not that smart,” he said.
“Do you have any fond memories of Princeton?” It took him a while.
“One time a friend and I decided to hitchhike down to University of Virginia for Easter break. We made this sign “TO VIRGINIA” and we were standing at the on ramp to I-95. This guy pulls over and says, “Boys, I can’t give you a ride, but I am gonna do you a favor. Virginia is south and you’re heading north!”
He explains he feels like he learned to write long before he got to Princeton from his mother and at Kutztown High. He mentions two high school English teachers by name, Mr. Shaw and Mr. Haring. Later, I find a copy of Sharon Sheehe Stark’s 1985 book, The Dealer’s Yard. She writes of an old oatmeal eating farmer she calls Sprecher, “Whipping his basic Pennsylvania German into a frenzy of high flat quacking like a duck.” I recognize Sprecher is the oatmeal eating Milt Miller in Heirloom. “The quacking never let up. ‘ DUNNA VEDER! GOTT FER DUMMTA YUNGA.”
After we turn off I-78 onto 287 North, Tim asks me, “Is it going to rain on Saturday?”
“I dunno, you’re the farmer,” I said. Perhaps I sounded dismissive, he shoots me a look and says with surprising force, “It better not rain Saturday.”
He grips the steering wheel tighter. “I hate it when it rains on Saturday,” he says, “especially these next two Saturdays, the big ones. I don’t mind if it rains all day on Thursday or a little bit Friday, but I hate it when it rains on Wednesday.” Then through clenched teeth, ” I really, really hate it when it rains on Wednesday AND Saturday.”
I’m scribbling away as if conscientious note-taking will help. (I forget if he likes or hates rain on Mondays, but his feelings on daily precipitation are clearly extreme.) I close my pad.”Tim,” I say, “I’m certainly no mental health expert, but you shouldn’t get so angry about things you have no control over.”
He nods. “You saying I need counseling?”
“I think we could all use counseling.”
“I’m just wound a little tighter than usual this time of year. My wife says I come home and track mud on the carpet just to prove I’m a farmer,” he says.
On the new three-lane section of Route 287 past Morristown I try get to back to lighter subjects.
“Green Zebra, Plum Lemon, Zapotec Pleated. Tomatoes have such wonderful names. Did you ever get to name your own?”
“Not really, I’m not much of a seed saver. James is better at that. I had my own Eckerton chile pepper and I had a couple others I liked, but I lost the genetics.”
“You lost the genetics?”
“Yeah, I am not that organized. Hey, where’s my checkbook? I see it; it fell on the floor, see what I mean?”
“You describe yourself as a truck farmer, what exactly is a truck farmer?”
“I don’t describe myself as a truck farmer. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what that means…” his voice trails off. He’s talking at a normal level for a living room, but he must know I can’t hear him over the sound of the truck.
“Okay, you call yourself an unconventional farmer, what…”
“I never called myself unconventional.”
“I thought you did, in the book. Didn’t you?”
“Other people might call me that. Or call themselves that. Not me.”
“How about organic?” I knew this was a hot button word for Tim, but asked anyway.
“Organic?” He raises his voice, “Don’t get me started on organic! You know what I am? I am a farmer! A farmer. I’m not self-righteous. I can look anyone in the eye and tell them I never spray pesticides or use any chemical fertilizer on anything I grow.”
He calms a bit. “You can see from what I write I don’t get preachy about sustainability. Everyone wants an easier lifestyle, right? But it’s hard to expect a farmer to get down on his knees and do what I do. Farmers want comfort like anyone else. With an air-conditioned tractor and air-conditioned combine you can get 3,000 acres of corn planted. I have nothing against big farmers with big combines as long as they plant a good rotation. I just don’t like it when they plant corn for ethanol year after year, until the land can’t support it and they want the taxpayer to bail them out. I never took a bailout, even in the drought of ’99.”
Rolling down Route 80 East, just as the dome of downtown Paterson’s courthouse came into view, the phone rang again. This time he picked it up. “Yeah, great, NPR? All Things Considered.” He turns to me, “It’s my publicist.” Then into the phone, “No, I’m talking to a guy in the truck; he’s interviewing me.” She must love that. Then back to me, “Where do I get off for Clifton?” I check the map. “Right Here, Exit 47B onto 46 East, right lane,” I tell him. We are almost on top of the exit. Then into the phone, “I have to put down the phone just until I merge,” he says. He drops the phone on the console, deftly downshifts and steers onto Route 46. Back on the phone he confirms the appointment with National Public Radio for a Saturday morning interview at the Greenmarket.
We make a delivery to Cliff in Clifton. Nice guy in need of Yellow Brandywines. Cliff wanted more heirloom tomatoes than Tim was prepared to sell. Tim rations out the rare stuff. Next stop is a warehouse in Leonia, New Jersey. Joel, the broker, is wearing a black Springsteen T-shirt. Joel inspects the corn, picked this morning. He pulls back the husk and bites into it raw. He loves it.
It is rush hour as we reach the George Washington Bridge. Luckily, the heavy traffic is heading the other way, off Manhattan. Highway signs warn of delays on the upper deck, but since September 11, 2001, the lower deck has remained closed to trucks. We make it across the upper deck and into the Bronx in under half an hour. At times we are moving no faster than pedestrians, but Tim is pleased with our progress. He tells me this stretch often takes three times as long. He thinks I might be good luck.
On the Cross Bronx Expressway along the left median divide, on the passing side of the highway, sat a ragged beggar with a dirty kitten in his arms. It is hard to believe Meadow View Farm is just a little more than a hundred miles away. Hard to believe Meadow View Farm is on the same planet.
We reach Hunt’s Point Market. The sign says Baldor Specialty Foods, 155 Food Center Drive, The Bronx. It looks more like a military base than a vegetable market. There is a high chain fence topped with razor wire. A uniformed guard recognizes Tim and waves us through the gated checkpoint. With the truck backed up to the loading dock, we entered the warehouse.I am wearing short pants and totally unprepared for the big chill. Workers zoomed around the floor on whisper-quiet skid lifters, not much bigger than Segway scooters. I felt like I had walked into a slo-mo hockey game, or an ice cold version of the Darth Vader’s Death Star.
We were surrounded by monoliths in shrink-wrap. Hundreds of great perfect cubes of plastic-encased produce. Each block contained a single product: Condor Asparagus from Peru, Andy Boy Broccoli Rabe from California, Perfection Yellow Bell Peppers from Holland, Giant Blackberries airlifted from Guatemala.
The ultramodern forklift devices were no help to us since most of our load was packed loose. And the docks were designed for standard trucks, taller and wider than Tim’s. The crew peered into the open truck, shook their heads, and called for supervision. “Just get us two empty skids. Come on,” said Tim. “We are wasting cold air!”
I pulled the truck’s door down. Tim pulled it right back up. What we had there was a failure to communicate.
I told him I pulled the door down to save the cold air on his refrigerated truck, so why’d he pull it back up so fast? He got a chuckle out of that. Turns out the “reefer” unit on his refrigerated truck doesn’t work. He was talking about wasting the cold air from the warehouse.
The workers on the scooter devices are young Hispanics, specialists, caballeros. They decline to dismount and pitch in. I enter the truck and pass the corn out to Tim. I bend my knees and I use two hands to lift the individual green net bags. They seem to weigh under twenty pounds each. Tim grabs them one-handed and lays them on the skids. Some bags are a different variety marked with a blue ribbon. I lift and as I turn to the light, if I find the ribbon, I call out ‘blue’. We get a rhythm going, but in short time I’m drenched in sweat and confusing the string at the end of the bags for ribbons. We switch off. Tim climbs in the truck; I stack. Stepping back onto the cold platform, I saw the goose bumps rising on my forearms. When we got the last of the corn unloaded, I caught my breath. We still had the tomatoes to unload. Tim plopped a skid in the truck, then grabbed the chain from the cab. We stacked the tomatoes then hooked the chain on the end of the skid so the forked scooters could pull it out.
I was feeling faint. Through a glass wall I saw a soda machine, went to it, and put in a dollar for a ginger ale. I finished the soda before I reached for my change. I took the change and pumped it back in, added more coins to get a Gatorade. A young guy in a khaki sweat suit came in. He was shivering and his hands were shaking as he tried to work the machine. In one part of my head I was thinking he was a junkie, but I realized he and I were exhibiting exactly the same symptoms. Maybe it was just day one in cold storage for him. I helped him get his snack.
Through the glass I could see Tim meeting with some more food brokers. He looked around for me, but I didn’t want to go back into the cold. These guys were dressed casual, but sharper than the Jersey boys. All smiles in their fitted black T-shirts, razor cut haircuts. But just like in Jersey, they pulled open an ear of corn and ate it raw.
Back in the tomato people truck, Tim told me they were happy. Clearly he was happy. “Man, are you alright? You’re really sweating.” I assured him I was fine. I told him it was my nature to sweat under certain conditions, and I had just experienced a heavy dose of those conditions.
“I got an idea,” said Tim. “If we see the traffic backed up on the GW, we’ll go into Manhattan to a fine restaurant. Dave Pasternack’s or a bistro.” I know from reading Heirloom it is now chic for farmers and other sweaty types to appear unannounced at fine restaurants. I tell him a gourmet meal would be wasted on me.
“You aren’t a vegetarian are you?” he asks. I tell him I don’t eat red meat. He takes this into consideration. “Okay, if the bridge is clear, and we get back to Kutztown before too late, I’ll take you to the Mexican restaurant.”
Maybe my breaking a sweat somehow broke a spell, but our conversation seemed transformed, friendlier, on the way back to Pennsylvania. We were on the same exhausted wavelength.
“There is a food blog where a woman says the sections on plowing are boring. Did you see that? Do you think the parts about plowing were boring?” Tim asked.
I laughed. I told him all the reviews I saw were good and assured him I loved the parts about plowing. I told him if he lost me anywhere, it was on the sometimes rather obscure literary allusions. For example, the farmhand who looked like the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. How many people know what Samuel Beckett looks like?
“Don’t you know what Samuel Beckett looks like?” he asked.
“Well, I do,” I said, “big ears, made bigger by a bad haircut, but that is one of the few I got. Probably why I mentioned it. But all references to the ancient Greeks? You lost me with the stuff about Odysseus being an organic farmer.”
“You don’t know the story of Odysseus and the plow?” he asks with a mix of surprise and genuine sympathy.
“Odysseus hooked one horse and one ox to his plow. So he’s plowing these wild, wobbly lines through his field. The whole town comes to watch. Then he sows salt in his field instead of seed.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they are going to war with Troy, and he was a great, strong man. The people wanted him, needed him, in their army. So they snatch his baby boy and throw the baby in the path of the plow. Odysseus steers away. Proves he’s not mad; so he has to go to war. It’s at the beginning of the Odyssey.”
“Wow,” I admit it’s a great story. Tim was getting talkative now. I enjoyed his remedial retelling of the Odyssey. But honestly, I got a bit lost when he launched into an explanation of the Zoroastrian concept of the afterlife.
We stopped for gas in Alpha, New Jersey. Diesel was fifteen cents a gallon cheaper than in Pennsylvania. Tim asked if I could drive a stick. Thirty years ago I drove a Ford falcon, but I declined. I’m sure we were both safer with an exhausted but more experienced truck driver.
We were almost home. I asked to hear more about the germination of the book project. “Early on I wrote one short story, The Waiter, based on a guy I knew when I was a waiter myself in New York City. I entered it in the Redbook fiction contest; made it to the finals. I got a long letter from one of the judges. He told me it was great writing and encouraged me to keep sending it out. It got rejected over and over, maybe thirty rejections, over the course of five years. Finally, it got picked up by the Missouri Review, which is a literary journal with a good reputation. But then nothing else got published for years.
Then I wrote this piece, A Farm Grows in Brooklyn, for Alimentum, a literary journal in Brooklyn. I got paid one copy of the journal. I went to a dinner reading they arranged, not knowing what to expect. It was at the American Institute of Wine and Food in Brooklyn. People were eating. I started reading. I was nervous, but as I read, I sensed people started eating more quietly. By the end they were perfectly quiet-
‘…For twelve years now, I’ve made a living from tomatoes. It’s not a bad life. I still do not own a farm, but I have my own tractor.
And that landlord who gave my tomatoes the boot? He works for me.’
When I got to the last line, I could hear the whole room sort of sigh. Then they applauded. Then Kate Christensen came up to me. Know who she is? She’s a writer, a great writer. She won the 2008 Faulkner Award for best novel. She asked if she could give the story to her editor at Broadway Books, part of Random House. He emailed me asking for something more, something longer. I had the Milt Miller essay started. I worked on it a bit more, sent it to him, and he called the next day. He said he wanted to publish my book; he sent me a contract and some real money.
It came at a good time, the money. My tractor had just broken down. It had been fourteen years since that story appeared in the Missouri Review. Man, that was a long drought.”
Heirloom contains no gardening tips or recipes. However, Tim Stark’s article, ‘Secrets of Tomato Growing” can be found on Organic Gardening magazine’s website. Tim admits he sometimes goes to a restaurant to order a BLT and informs the cook he brought his own tomato. He shared his recipe for the perfect tomato sandwich in an interview with Jonathan Reynolds in the NY Times.