"Windshield doctor and heirloom tomato grower." It sounds like one of those joke advertisements, but Darrell Elser juggles these two vocations with aplomb.
He certainly provides the greatest diversity of tomatoes at Southern California farmers markets: more than 50 varieties, most of them heirlooms, lovingly grown on half an acre of his yard in Yucaipa, east of Redlands. Other than the fact that you have to pay for the fruit, visiting his stand is like having your own backyard tomato garden.
A surprising number of farmers, even at farmers markers, don't eat the crops they grow, but Elser, who is 53, tall and beefy, adores tomatoes. "I wouldn't grow them if I didn't," he says on an early morning visit to his planting. "I love the way one is high acid, another is super sweet, and another is rich and smoky."
He is loath to name just one as his favorite but, when pressed, settles on three: Black Krim "has deep, complex flavor, like drinking a fine wine." Striped German is "supersweet for a big tomato." And Aunt Ruby's German Green has a flavor that's "sweet but really spicy, with a little kick."
There are other farmers market vendors who do an excellent job growing heirloom tomatoes, but none are as fastidious as Elser in their display. He spreads the fruits out in a single layer on the table, with a sign saying "please do not pick up unless you're buying." He's not quite the "Tomato Nazi," akin to a Seinfeld character, but close.
He and his family his wife, Maria, two daughters, and a son-in-law do all the work themselves, planting, tying the plants to stakes so they don't fall down, watering, harvesting and selling at six farmers markets.
He came to his dual professions in a roundabout way: He attended college in the area and learned auto body repair because one day while he was serving as a volunteer firefighter, a drunk decided to play demolition derby with his car. He found that he was good at repairing car carcasses, and for more than 30 years he has worked as an auto body technician, for a shop in nearby Banning, and on his own.
His wife always grew tomatoes in their garden, but until eight years ago, they had never eaten an heirloom variety, much less grown one. About that time a neighbor who was market gardening inspired them to try it themselves.
The family's tomato collection is almost matched by their menagerie: five dogs; 13 cats; two curious and intelligent-looking African pygmy goats; a horse, which provides copious organic fertilizer; a pig; and about 150 chickens. Most of these also love to eat tomatoes, Elser says.
Yucaipa is at an elevation of 2,000 feet, but it's not far from the desert, and it gets brutally hot in the summer. "It's a challenge to keep the plants properly hydrated so that the thin-skinned fruits don't split," Elser says. He starts work at dawn, goes inside at noon for several hours, and takes three showers a day, he adds.
The Elsers sell a few commercial varieties grown in a greenhouse year-round, except for November to January. Their heirloom tomatoes, grown in the field, started a month ago, but their highest volume and best flavor come in August; the family will continue to sell through October or November, depending on the advent of freezing weather.
They farm completely organically, although they have not gone to the expense of certification. Growing tomatoes year after year on the same land leaves the plants susceptible to disease, which is one of the reasons that they're planning to shift production next year to fresh land nearby, where daughter Krystal is buying a home.
What drove Elser to pursue tomato growing with such passion? "It's the enjoyment of being with my family," he says. "It's like sitting around the dinner table for a lot of people, except we do it all day long. We have a great time."
Elser's Country Farm currently sells at these farmers markets: Big Bear (Tuesdays), Chino Hills (Wednesdays), Redlands (Thursdays), Torrance (Saturdays), Palos Verdes (Sundays) and Hollywood (Sundays).