Stress Yields a Sweeter Life

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Tim Stark grows tomatoes, peppers, corn, peas, beets and whatever else he chooses at Eckerton Hill F

Tim Stark grows tomatoes, peppers, corn, peas, beets and whatever else he chooses at Eckerton Hill Farm, in Hamburg, Pa., and sells his produce at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. He blogs about food and farming for Gourmet magazine. hide caption

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I believe that an atmosphere of stress and chaos — within reason — brings out my best qualities. And I believe my heirloom tomatoes feel the same way.

My farm started out as a garden, a weekend respite from New York City, where I worked as a management consultant. In that job, the stress often went unrewarded. Cranking out three-dimensional pie charts backed by reams of prose, I could show the client how to fix what went wrong only to have them hire another consultant to tell them the same thing.

So, I grew tomatoes to relax — at first. But early one spring, on the top floor of a Brooklyn brownstone, I germinated 3,000 tomato seedlings on heat mats beneath fluorescent grow lights. Before work, I would get up two hours early to fuss with my plants. Once, during a meeting in Albany, I convinced myself I had forgotten to insert the thermometer into the heated soil. Horrific scenarios preyed on my imagination: the heat mats would grow hotter, the seedlings would fry, my apartment would ignite. I left the meeting early and flew home to New York City, convinced I would have to rescue my seedlings from a burning brownstone. As it turned out, the thermometer was safely in the soil.

Any right-minded consultant would have advised against the exhausting, under-capitalized and dysfunctional venture my garden expanded into. But the work brought rewards. The back pain I got from pounding tomato stakes was nothing like the back pain that came with trying to meet consulting deadlines. And those pie charts? You couldn't bite into them the way you could a rich, juicy, fresh tomato.

I don't know who suffered most early on, me or my tomatoes. The stress was tough on both of us: tomatoes ripening faster than I could pick them, tomatoes exploding beneath the ruthless sun. It would be midnight before I got the truck loaded to come here, and then at 4 in the morning, driving in, the truck would run out of gas.

What I brought to this market was a ragtag lot: Black Krim, Aunt Ruby's German Green, Zapotec Pleated, Extra Eros Zlatolaska. They were zippered, cracked and hopelessly mottled.

But those tomatoes developed a following. Customers had grown suspicious of the fire-engine red variety: over-irrigated, sprayed at the first sign of disease, pumped up with fertilizer, pampered like a bottle-fed baby. My tomatoes had to compensate and persevere, dig for their minerals and water, find their own way. The patches of black, the concentric scars, the multiple signs of tomato suffering, showed strength and flavor. I couldn't help but notice how my tomatoes responded to me in ways that women and bosses never had. My tomatoes needed me, and I needed them.

For 10 years, I've made a living from tomatoes. It's not a bad life, even though I threaten to quit each year. But things have gotten better since I started out. These days, at the peak of summer, I get four hours of sleep where once I got two. I believe in managed stress. It sweetens the tomatoes. I like to think it sweetens me, too.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

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