Happy Boy Heirloom History
How We Started Growing These Grand Ol' Plants
Posted by Drew
Happy Boy Farms has been committed to the Heirloom Tomato movement since 1989 and we pride ourselves on growing truly excellent tomatoes. These days Heirloom tomatoes are all over the food scene, from menus to cookbooks to magazines. Food authors tout the glories of these truly tasty “real” tomatoes and the finest chefs will settle for nothing less. Back in the late 80’s and early 90's, however, the Bay Area food scene was not yet hip to the heirloom tomato, and few grocers would even carry them and even fewer farmers were growing them.
For several decades the mainstream market had been dominated by an industry standard of red, round tomatoes which were bred and grown by large agricultural corporations for their uniform look and stable shelf life. They prioritized mass production and the logistics of shipping large quantities long distances. Amid the industrialization of agriculture, the tomato lost all its glory, taste and variety. Stores carried tomatoes year round, crops shipped from long distances across borders, and yet the flavor just wasn’t there.
Happy Boy Farm’s owner, Greg Beccio, was motivated to start growing tomatoes because of this distinct void in the marketplace. He wanted people to be able to walk into a store and buy a tomato that actually tasted good. In 1989, he chose an award winning heirloom variety, “Carmello”, to plant and attempted to sell the harvest wholesale to stores and restaurants. The process was frustrating, however, as many stores simply would not carry them, writing them off as a novelty or a curiosity. After much perseverance, a few restauranteurs began to take notice. Chefs like Alice Waters and restaurants like Chez Panisse increased the heirloom tomato's exposure by incorporating them into their menus and as the demand rose, more and more local farmers began to view the heirloom tomato as a viable crop.
The following season, Greg selected a yellow cherry tomato to plant in addition to another heirloom variety, “Celebrity”. This was the first year that Greg sold produce at farmers' markets. He merchandised the heirlooms with a sign that simply read “When was the last time you had a truly great tomato?”. Flavor and taste were the crux of the issue, and Greg was determined to educate the public that good tomatoes not only existed, but could be grown and bought locally. As in the early days of mesclun salad greens, folks were unfamiliar with such a product and understandably shied away at first - only the dedicated and vigilant efforts of growers who believed there was a better way to produce great tasting tomatoes helped turn this trend around and set a new standard for how a tomato should look and taste.
Farmers and farms - like Happy Boy, Riverside Farms, Capay, Terra Firma and Full Belly - as well as individuals like Tomato-Fest-Founder Gary Ibsen, helped raise awareness of heirloom tomatoes and slowly but surely ushered in a new era of great tasting tomatoes. Since conventional farms were not growing such a specialty product then, every crop of Heirloom Tomatoes in the produce industry was organic. Greenleaf Produce - an SF based produce distributor committed to local and sustainable distribution - was one of the largest Heirloom Tomato buyers at the time. Greg, then operating as Riverside Farms - was a high quantity supplier, laying the groundwork for his place in the heirloom tomato market for years to come. As heirloom tomatoes found their way into the limelight of the Bay Area food scene and beyond, Greg continued to expand and improve his growing methods and worked tirelessly to search out new, successful varieties. To this day, he still constantly adapts production to meet the challenges of the land, weather, and environment, all in order to cultivate the tastiest, most flavorful tomatoes and constantly raise the bar on how we expect a tomato to taste.
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Market Hall Produce
A true gem in the heart of Rockridge in Oakland, Market Hall Produce has been a paragon of dedication to local farms for over 25 years. Find out more about this wonderful East Bay establishment, as well as other partners that we have the privelege to work with.