The Press-Enterprise

Tomatoes -- the fruit of a Yucaipa family's labor -- comes in literally dozens of varieties
By Sean Nealon
August 27, 2009
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Seven years ago, looking to make some extra money to pay their daughters' college tuition bills, Darrell and Maria Elser planted three varieties of heirloom tomatoes in their Yucaipa yard.

Today -- through purposeful and accidental cross-breeding, hours of online searches, travel to tomato festivals and a desire to educate people about the distinct history and flavor of each heirloom variety -- the Elsers sell 52 types at farmers markets throughout Southern California.

"It just got bigger and bigger," said Maria Elser, 50, who left her job as a teacher's aide to work full time at Elser's Country Farm.

The Elsers' tomatoes -- which range in size from a marble to six inches in diameter, weigh up to four pounds and are red, orange, green, yellow and pink with some black, brown, purple, bronze and white thrown in -- are receiving a lot of attention in heirloom tomato circles.

Laurel Garza, who lives in Los Angeles and sells 30,000 heirloom tomato plants annually through her Web site, said she knows no one who grows as many varieties as the Elsers.

Every year, Garza sends a list of her favorite 15 new discoveries to her customers nationwide. The lists are dotted with varieties developed by the Elsers.

At the moment, Garza is most excited about the Brown Derby, which she describes as having the "perfect combination of tang to sweetness with plenty of juice and a rapturous brown and green color."

Last summer, at the Palos Verdes farmers market, where the Elsers sell on Sundays, Garza got the last Brown Derby. Another woman begged her for it. Garza wouldn't hand it over.

"Normally, I would give it up," Garza said. "But we needed it. I wanted to save the seeds for my customers and eat it."

Gigi Leong, of Sherman Oaks, read about the Elsers' heirlooms on Garza's Web site. Last week, after business meetings in Loma Linda, Leong detoured to the Elsers' stand at the Redlands farmers market to pick up some $4.25-per-pound heirlooms.

After talking tomatoes for 30 minutes with Maria Elser, Leong left with nearly a dozen varieties, all labeled with notes to remember which is which when she plants the seeds.

Total cost: $54.

Growing tomatoes

The Elsers' tomato plants share space on their nearly 2-acre lot on Oak Glen Road at 13th Street, just north of Interstate 10, with a horse, pig, two goats, five dogs, 13 cats, 50 quail, more than 100 chickens, a house and a pool. They've owned the land nearly 29 years.

They sell heirloom peppers, heirloom squash and chicken and quail eggs, but they're best known for their heirloom tomatoes.

Heirlooms are varieties that have been passed down from generations throughout the world and aren't genetically altered. They come in a greater variety of shapes, sizes, colors and tastes compared to commercially grown tomatoes.

Maria Elser and her daughter, Krystal, 23, grow each heirloom plant from seed bought or saved from tomatoes they grow. They usually plant in early April. During peak season, usually in July, they harvest up to 1,300 pounds of tomatoes a week.

Maria and Krystal Elser work full time on the farm. Darrell Elser, 53, and John Rominger, 26, Krystal's fiancÚ, help when they're not working their other jobs, fixing cars and windshields and laboring in a Colton cement plant.

Selling Tomatoes

The Elsers sell tomatoes at six farmers markets: Big Bear (Tuesday), Chino Hills (Wednesday), Redlands (Thursday), Torrance (Saturday), Palos Verdes (Sunday) and Hollywood (Sunday). They pick the night before evening markets and the morning of evening markets, such as Redlands.

Last week, the Elsers arrived at the Redlands market at 5 p.m., an hour before it opened. They unloaded 23 Styrofoam boxes, each with a single layer of tomatoes.

Darrell Elser assembled one-pound baskets of the smaller varieties, ranging in size from a grape to a golf ball.

Maria and Krystal Elser unpacked the larger varieties. Using a damp towel, they cleaned each one before placing it on the tomato-themed tablecloth. Then they placed a card next to each variety. It described the origin and taste of each type.

They also placed signs that read: "Please don't pick up unless you are buying." Below the words: a picture of Yosemite Sam with a gun.

That sign didn't seem to deter customers, who were lined up before the market officially opened.

Cheryl Magnuson, 50, of Apple Valley, was among them. She bought about a pound of tomatoes and planned to eat them with goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

"I love heirloom tomatoes," Magnuson said. "I live for heirloom tomatoes. I'm lucky my husband doesn't like tomatoes because I can eat them all."

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