Working on a tomato harvest - KCTV5 News

Working on a tomato harvest

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It's been a bad year for Liz Kurlbaum and her sister, Sally Kukenski. The cold and wet spring slowed the maturation of their prize crop, about 3,000 Heirloom tomato plants, spread out over 60-acres in Kansas City, KS. What's worse, cool nights all the way into July, has further stunted their crop. The sisters said this is the worst they've seen things.

"We thought, over the years, we had seen our worst season," Kukenski said. "Well, this is our worst season in nine years, and it's all because of the weather."

Kurlbaum and Kukenski said, in a good year, they'd harvest about 4,000 pounds of Heirloom deliciousness. So far this year, they've picked about 200-pounds.

The sisters took over the farm from their parents, who grew apples and peaches, in the 40s and 50s. They switched to tomatoes in 1987, but it wasn't the family-first foray into tomatoes. Before moving to Kansas, Sky Kurlbaum, Liz's husband, grew up on his parent's family farm in Sandoval, IL, that grew tomatoes for more than 35 years.

"We grew these incredibly flavorful tomatoes, when I got to Kansas, and planted tomatoes, they just didn't taste the same," Sky Kurlbaum said. "I heard about these Heirloom seeds and bought them. A neighbor helped me grow the plants from seeds, and I was hooked."

Heirloom tomato seeds, unlike hand-pollinated hybrids, are the result of "open" pollination by the wine, birds or insects. The tomatoes are prized for certain characteristics, and the seeds are often saved and passed down from generation to generation. Heirloom tomatoes are more colorful, more flavorful, and juicier than any tomato you will find at your average supermarket, and they are both highly prized and increasingly popular. But, make no mistake about it, Heirloom tomatoes are still a niche market, and almost all times, a hand-sell.

"My background is in sales, and Sky is a lawyer. He was sharing a basket of tomatoes with a client down at a restaurant on the Plaza, and the chef was blown away by their flavor," Liz Kurlbaum said. "I had no problem talking to chefs. Michael Smith and Debbie Gold at 40 Sardines, and Mike McGonigle at McGonigle's Fine Meats were early customers. We just built it from there."

In addition to McGonigle's Fine Foods, you can find Kurlbaum's Heirloom tomatoes at Conveniently Natural on Southwest Trafficway. But mainly, you'll find them in restaurants. They're featured in roughly 30 Kansas City area restaurants, including some of the best in town: Jasper's, Extra Virgin, The Bristol, Lidia's, Michael Smith's and Story, just to name a few.

With names like Abraham Lincoln, Aunt Ruby's Green, Black Zebra, Chocolate Striped, Yellow Mortgage Lifter and the Hillbilly Potato Leaf, each with their individual origins and histories, the tomatoes are as interesting as they are delicious, just like the Kurlbaum's story.

"I was raised on my family's farm, and we wanted to teach our five kids the work ethic and lifestyle of a farm life. We've done that. In fact, our oldest son, Max, a high school senior, is the farm foreman," Liz Kurlbaum said with pride. "Still, I always tell Sky, ‘Don't give up the day job!'"

Which brings us back to this terrible year, and some advice for other tomato growers suffering through the lousy season.

"Just nurse them a little bit," Liz Kurlbaum said. "Give them a little fertilizer. Just hope. That's part of farming, right?"

It's one of the latest harvests the sisters have seen, but finally, many weeks late, they said they're starting to see a little color.

"I'm slowly able to deliver to restaurants that have been faithful to us through the years," Liz Kurlbaum said. "And, that means a lot."

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