If there was one taste of summer for Kansas City-area gardeners, it must be that of a tomato. Not a supermarket tomato, but a garden-grown one or one grown by area producers.
The May program in Gardeners Connect’s Free Speaker Series celebrates the tomato with a presentation by half of the entrepreneurial couple who produce and market Kurlbaum Tomatoes.
Sky Kurlbaum, co-entrepreneur with his wife, Liz, of Kurlbaums’ Tomatoes, plans to present a program titled “Everything I Learned From a Tomato – Producing and Selling Premium Products in a Commoditized Market.”
Both Sky and Liz Kurlbaum come from familial backgrounds steeped in food production. Sky was raised on an Illinois family farm, and Liz’s family from the Kansas City area sold apples, peaches and cider at the City Market.
Liz’s parents, Myron and Cecelia (Sally) Sigler, operated a 65-acre orchard starting in 1951 in Kansas City, Kan. The orchard there had been started by European immigrants in the late 1800s. She was the youngest of 11 children who worked the orchard until the late 1980s, when the farm went dormant as the last of the family operators created another business in search of better income.
When Liz and Sky married, they moved to the KCK farm with Liz’s mother. Sky began to grow tomatoes. He became enamored of heirloom tomatoes, growing them from seed obtained in the late 1980s from Seed Savers Exchange. That interest in tomatoes has grown to a summer business that supplies chefs in more than two dozen area restaurants, including Michael Smith Restaurant, Jasper’s Restaurant and Marco Polo Italian Market, and Brio Italian Grille. In addition, the Kurlbaums have presented tomato-focused farm-to-table dinners featuring area chefs.
The Kurlbaums also sell their heirloom tomatoes to the general public. Their fans they call “Kurlbaum Tomaniacs.” They grow dry-farmed heirloom tomatoes that are never refrigerated.
“Dry farming” is a method where all irrigation is cut off after the plants have become established. This lack of water stresses the plant, forcing its roots deep into the soil in search of water and focuses its efforts on producing fruit. The resulting tomatoes are usually smaller and lower in yield, but pack tremendously intense flavor and a dense, firm texture.
The heirloom tomatoes the Kurlbaums offer cover a broad spectrum of tomato colors, from the ‘Great White’ and ‘Yellow Mortgage Lifter,’ to pink ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Crykovic’ (a Yugoslavian tomato), to purple ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘Eli’s Brandypurple (their own variety originally found by their son, Eli), to striped ‘Pineapple’ and ‘Big Rainbow,’ and to even the green ‘Aunt Ruby’ and ‘Tasty Evergreen.’