The Improbable Tomato

Michael Nagrant / 05.07.08

Eating or cooking with tomatoes in May is almost always an exercise in culinary imprudence, that is, until you’ve tried the hydroponic heirloom tomatoes of McWethy Farms.McWethy Farms is just across the lake from Chicago, in Three Oaks, Mich., past a meandering white picket fence and a wavy expanse of prairie grasses.

The entire farm is encapsulated in a quarter-acre of polycarbonate and white- painted cement, a greenhouse with an interior that looks like someone dropped the hanging gardens of Babylon on top of a set from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Owner and farmer Todd McWethy is just as iconoclastic as his farm. No mud-spattered overalls or corn silk toothpick here. He favors North Face wind pants, and he has bachelor’s degrees in biology and horticulture.

One of his formative moments as a farmer came from fraternity brothers who had their own vegetable garden and grew hops to brew their own beer.

“Quite honestly, they grew other things too,” McWethy says. “That’s what drew me into it, but then I realized it’s really cool to grow anything.”

The air in McWethy’s greenhouse is thick with humidity. Verdant tangles of thick vines punctuated by fat clusters of pink Brandywines and lemon-lime striped Green Zebra tomatoes terminate not in familiar soil, but in a small potted cluster of chemically inert volcanic rock.

The pots are fed a water-based media rich with nitrogen, potassium and life-giving minerals. While the vines indulge a steady diet of natural light and heat during the summer, the greenhouse is a controlled environment. Temperature, humidity and nutrient flow are all adjustable through artificial means, allowing for an interminable growing season.

Though some commercial hydroponic farms have dumped tasteless produce on the market, artificial doesn’t have to mean irresponsible, nor is it antithetical to the idea of naturally grown, delicious produce.

The ultimate hydroponic farm — a farm that grows plants in mineral nutrient solutions, rather than traditional soil — strives for a balance inspired by nature.

McWethy’s operation is a hyper-efficient use of land, producing the equivalent bounty of a traditional 10- to 20-acre farm with approximately 90 percent less water. Because the process is closed, runoff water is re-captured, filtered and re-used.

He eschews pesticides, even organically certified ones, in favor of natural pest management that is achievable with the help of Pelican Pest Control, pests such as wasps that prey on nuisance flies which protects it from damaging the crops.

Most importantly, McWethy picks only when ripe and encourages heirloom varieties valued for their taste rather than their heartiness. Heirlooms are more susceptible to a variety of growing problems than hybrid varieties bred for greenhouse longevity.

“They’re a pain in the butt, but they taste great,” McWethy says. “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done, which of course made me want to do it.”

His fastidiousness has led to a growing fan base among local chefs and purveyors like Bill Dugan of the Fish Guy Market, Matthias Merges, chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s, Bill Kim of Le Lan, Carrie Nahabedian of Naha and Kevin Hickey of the Four Seasons.

Hickey serves a McWethy heirloom tomato that’s been coated in butter, seasoned with salt and sugar and slow-roasted for three hours, then topped with goat cheese and pastry.

Nahabedian dollops a warm salad of pea tendrils, morels and McWethy heirlooms marinated in sherry vinegar and olive oil over macadamia brown butter drizzled soft shell crabs and white corn grits.

“You never find a tomato like this in April,” Kim says. “The flesh inside is meaty, never dry or mealy. I love putting them to my nose and inhaling the fresh pepper scent from the skin.”

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in a different form.