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In growing and selling, Abels know their tomatoes

TOWN OF UNION--Once Steve and Mary Abel got a taste of organic gardening, their dining table was set for life.

The couple has long shared the harvest of their growing efforts, Mrs. Abel said Wednesday. They've regularly provided the overflow of their abundance to family and friends.

Last year, they offered a subscription service to grow produce for up to 14 other families, she said. Now, they're assuming responsibility for an annual heirloom tomato-tasting near Maiden Rock.

"We plan to have 30 to 35 varieties for people to try," she said about the fifth annual event, being held at Maiden Rock Apples next Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. There's a charge of $5 per taster.

Heirloom tomatoes are passed on by generations of families who save seeds and specialize in growing them, Mrs. Abel explained. They're actually saving genetic history; it's kind of a throwback to immigrants who came to this country with seeds sown right into their clothing.

"They didn't know what they'd find here to eat," she said.

The Abels, who have an 11-year-old son Taylor and nine-year-old daughter Miranda, find heirlooms in a Seed Savers Exchange they consult, which makes 3,344 varieties worldwide available, Abel said. His wife said they've come to realize it's more economical to start their plants from seed, so they rely on seed catalogs and services. Tomatoes account for the largest share of their garden.

"Steve never even liked tomatoes," she said, adding her spouse has more recently developed a taste for them, especially the dark ones.

Among the nearly 400 tomato plants in their Town of Union garden this season are around 60 different varieties, Mrs. Abel said. Last week, the selection on counters and tables in their home included kinds ranging from green grape to brownberry to accordion.

Unlike most tomatoes on the commercial market, heirlooms don't all ripen at the same time, she said. They tend to have thinner skins, making them less desirable for shipping. But their flavor can be appealing; she indicated one type is the sweetest tomato she's ever eaten.

They must be open-pollinated, Mrs. Abel said, noting they reappear the same year after year. In fact, many are at least 15-to-20-years-old. Some sold in well-known catalogs such as Burpee and Jung's of the 1950s and '60s are still around.

"They've stood the test of time," she said.

The Abel family's present tomato crop was planted in late May, she said, describing their soil as heavy and high in nutrients. Because of a regulation requiring it to be moved, they didn't use their hoop house for growing this season. Worm castings helped give the tomato plants their start, along with kelp meal plus calcium in the form of crushed egg shells, mixed into potting soil.

Due to dryness, the plants were watered extensively last month, said her husband, who has an outside job at the Menards distribution center in Eau Claire. They've installed a tape system, which irrigates at the root level. It also helps avoid leaf damage.

Mrs. Abel said she's noticed a little blight on the plants, a result of stress. She also saw a bit of blossom end rot, which she called unusual, considering it's normally associated with overly wet conditions. There hasn't been much trouble with pests, though crickets, grasshoppers and cut worms can cause problems. To address pesky weeds, the garden rows are lined with hay.

The growers are regulars at the weekly farmers market in Maiden Rock, she said, often one of three to seven or eight vendors there on a typical Saturday. Besides tomatoes, they plant some potatoes (one of the most difficult crops to grow organically), lettuce, spinach, spring greens and berries.

The Chippewa Falls native has always had some type of garden, she said. While a student at UW-River Falls, she grew plants in window boxes. The couple met at a wedding and she substitute taught until she had a sick child, then needing a home vocation, returned to gardening. Their plot is on a farm located just south of the farm where her mate, a 1988 graduate of Plum City High School, grew up.

His father, Glen, traded homes with them for awhile during the 1990s after his mother, Pat, died, she said. His dad had had as many as 50 cows in the past and they tried milking cows at that time, but it didn't work out for them. They settled on their present site in 2000 and replaced the former 100-year-old farm house there with a new one last year.

Although Mrs. Abel cans tomatoes, her favorite use is to make them part of bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, she said. Their tomatoes are also sold to The Nortons Restaurant in Bay City.

She said they'll succeed Ruth Viste at next month's tasting event. Viste originated the event after becoming enamored with heirlooms. The apple orchard's owners were receptive to it because it's early in their season and helps generate interest on the last major summer holiday. They have a large barn to house it, complete with certified kitchen.

Viste has now retired and the Abels, veterans at the event, were asked to assume arrangements for it, Mrs. Abel said. They'll have a list of tomato types available for the tasters. A lot of the attendees are gardeners who'll pick out what they hope to grow next year based on their tasting choices.