Tomatoes Afford Innovation at Woodland Valley Farms
As the field receives its first glimpse of sun, colors of the farm jump to life and crops reach towards the light. Green leaves hint at the root vegetables growing below the dark soil, while high-in-the-sky tufts of brown silk indicate that sweet corn is ready for harvest. Among these crops, tomatoes grow with their thin peel stretched over vibrant, juicy insides.
Chase Renninger, owner of Woodland Valley Farms, knows these tomatoes as a crop that the South is comfortable with in more ways than one. "Tomatoes grow easily in the sandy soil of South Carolina, and I know that customers will always buy a good tomato," says Renninger as he unloads his truck at Columbia's Soda City Farmers’ Market, about 70 miles from his farm in Jackson, South Carolina.
The reliability of tomatoes ensures an income for local farmers, which is important in an economy that favors the large farming industry. Between soil depletion and highly competitive prices, small farmers face big hurdles. Still, Woodland Valley Farms opened in December 2016 and began the arduous work of building a farm that thrives on diversity and low waste.
The Renninger family has owned and farmed land in South Carolina for generations, but Chase Renninger is beginning something new: permaculture farming. In addition to diverse and organic farming, permaculture farming is dedicated to working with the land rather than against it, which sits well with some, like Renninger, who has deep ties to the land and local culture. Though there are other farms in the Midlands that cultivate crop diversity and grow organic produce, Woodland Valley is one of the only farms in South Carolina that has committed to permaculture in all aspects.
Renninger’s relationship with the land is more than a family connection. He has taken years of family knowledge and paired it with a mission to address global issues on a local level. As unstable food systems and diet-related illnesses remain problematic, Renninger sees a solution through local farming. He says, "we've got to get back to the beginning and remember what we actually need to survive: food, water, shelter and community."
He points out that many small local farmers live a healthy lifestyle through the foods they eat, the exercise of working the land and the community that farms provide. On a personal level, the farm is producing such diversity that Renninger is able to get roughly 95% of the food he eats from the farm. Increased understanding and visibility of small local farms help their business and the health of the community.
The crops and animals work together to create a low-waste food production system. The cattle, chickens, lambs and goats are part of product diversity, but they also help produce fertilizer and compost materials to revitalize soil for the crops to ensure more nutrient-rich produce. As the farm grows, Renninger looks forward to introducing his community to new foods, particularly nutrient-rich greens and herbs. To branch out, though, he must rely on crops that grow well and sell well. This is where classic vegetables like tomatoes can play their part in an innovative, small farming business. Consistently growing and selling tomatoes gives farmers a firm financial base that makes space for exploring new crops and livestock, ultimately increasing the diversity of South Carolina's food production.
On Renninger’s farm, they grow cherry tomatoes, a sauce tomato and heirloom tomatoes. Renninger recommends older heirloom varieties like the Prudens Purple tomato and the more commonly known Cherokee Purple, which was developed in Tennessee and grows well here in South Carolina. All varieties of these distinctly Southern summer vegetables decorate salads, cover tomato pies and complete bacon and lettuce sandwiches. But tomatoes rarely make an appearance for meals before noon, which is a true shame once you start to think about the possibilities.
We try to squeeze them into breakfast by topping shrimp and grits with tomatoes or tossing them in an omelet with a long list of other vegetables, but tomatoes deserve a much larger role in the first meal of the day. The acidic juice is made to cut salty pork or rich eggs. Thick slices of tomato drizzled with a cold-pressed olive oil and sprinkled with fresh basil leaves is a Woodland Valley favorite, and adding a duck egg or sausage patty from the farm makes this ideal for breakfast. Using contrasting flavors and fellow summer vegetables is a seasonal and healthy way start to every summer day.