Wednesday, August 20, 2003

The farmer in the 'burbs


Bob Bauer cultivates a different kind of healthy suburban growth from his 10 acres in West Chester

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Bob Bauer atop his vintage 1940s tractor at his tiny West Chester farm.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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Bob Bauer is like other farmers growing tomatoes to sell at roadside stands: He's praying for sunshine, swatting flies and pulling pesky pigweed.

But that's where Bauer's resemblance to other farmers ends. He lives in the middle of a subdivision in West Chester Township - not a picturesque farmhouse with cows and a windmill. And he wears colorful floral print shirts, shorts and open-toed sandals. Bib overalls and work boots just don't fit him.

A former scuba instructor who designs jewelry on the side, Bauer, 46, has sandy hair and eyes the shade of faded Levi's. He could pass for a good vibrations Beach Boy. But he is a farmer who lives in the burbs and caters to the burbs at his roadside stand on Cincinnati-Dayton Road in West Chester Township.

"More and more people are realizing the stuff grown close to home tastes better," says Bauer, who loves to turn suburbanites on to his tomatoes and other produce.

Unlike the boys in overalls, he rarely rises at the crack of dawn. On this Wednesday, it's nearly 10 a.m. and Bauer still is tending flowers in his front yard. A quick tour reveals his talent. His back yard looks like a landscaped garden center, with a stone-lined dry creek bed, dwarf conifers, crinkly-leafed hostas and redbud trees. He designed and planted it all.

Among these exotic plants there's the occasional volunteer pumpkin or squash vine - he's not sure which - and tall Swiss chard sprouting by the porch. On the south side of the house, there are neat rows of lettuce, which have bolted from the summer heat, sending up flowering stalks.

"I bet I had to throw away 10,000 heads of lettuce this spring," Bauer says. "I'm still trying to figure out the spring thing."

He started the lettuce, tomatoes and hundreds of other vegetables from seed in his heated basement, using 100 hanging lights to simulate sunlight. Bauer knows how to grow plants and how to care for them. But figuring out what people will buy is another thing entirely.

2nd season of veggies

Bauer is relatively new at selling vegetables - this is only his second season. But he has been fascinated with growing plants since he was a blond, moppy-haired child growing up in Sharonville. His mother, Dolores Bauer, who helps him run his roadside stand, remembers her young son planting a small vegetable garden next to his grandmother's plot. Grandmother used chemical fertilizer, while grandson fortified the soil with organics.

IF YOU GO
Bob Bauer's Market is at 9300 Cincinnati-Dayton Road in West Chester Township. To get there from Cincinnati, take I-75 north to Union Center Blvd. Turn right at Exit 19and go less than a mile; turn right on Cincinnati-Dayton Road. Market is less than half mile on right. Market is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Bauer also sells tomatoes and other vegetables at the Farmer's Shed at Findlay Market on Saturday.

To find other farmer's markets in Greater Cincinnati, go to Cincinnati.com.

"Her garden turned out better," Dolores says. "But Bob's tomatoes were still just as big as hers."

Dolores' grandfather was the head gardener of Spring Grove Cemetery in Winton Place, and her father was a "great hybridizer" of plants, so Bauer is well-rooted in gardening.

At Scarlet Oaks Career Development school in Sharonville, the young Bauer designed his course of study based on running a greenhouse. Before he graduated, he worked for a plant nursery in Lebanon. He considered studying horticulture in college, but a professor at Miami University told him he could learn more outside the classroom. So after high school, he opened a greenhouse in Amelia. He sold it two years later, wandered for a few years, then returned to his first passion, opening Bauer's Nursery in West Chester Township in 1981.

Later, Bauer became interested in scuba diving and then jewelry design. In what must have been a first in unusual one-stop shopping, he opened a dive shop and a jewelry store next to his nursery in a strip mall on Ohio 42.

A landlord dispute led him to close the nursery and other shops in 2001. He still takes diving vacations to Hawaii and other parts of the Pacific, and he grinds and polishes gems in a cluttered room upstairs at his home.

"I don't have a 401K," he says, showing off an opal pendant he designed. "So this will be my retirement."

But he's far from retiring from farming.

"I love doing this because I'm creating something," he says. "Certainly not because of the money."

He sells REAL tomatoes

He climbs into his old blue Ford pickup and chugs away to the market, only five minutes away.

You can't miss the sign on the dirt road leading to his market that reads: REAL Tomatoes. Bauer has pitched a large, chrome-colored tent in front of an ancient barn with a roof that resembles an Amish bonnet.

Under the tent are tables lined with rows of pink and red tomatoes, green and yellow squash and fragrant melons. His mother, a small woman with silver bangs and quick smile, is breaking the dried stalks off garlic bulbs that Bauer pulled from the ground a few weeks earlier.

"My friends can't believe I do this," says Dolores, who works the market nearly every day. "But I love it."

"I couldn't do this without her," her son says.

Customers drive up in silver Jaguars, white Infinitis and minivans and SUVs of every color.

"When it comes to tomatoes, most people want to know what it tastes like and if it will fit on a sandwich," Dolores says.

Bauer dons a floppy, khaki-colored hat and heads for the field, still wearing shorts and sandals.

Along the way, he points out thriving kohlrabi, purple torpedo onions and colorful cutting flowers - zinnias, nigellas and stunning "snow-on-the mountains"- that he sells at his stand and at Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine. Bauer is ecstatic when he sees withering Johnson Grass.

"I think I killed it!" he says, pulling up the ugly weed.

Bauer applies herbicide to his fields, but not insecticide. Nothing in his arsenal can help tomatoes ravaged by fungus and other diseases, brought on by summer rains.

"Leaf blight is one of the biggest problems," he says. "It's been just too wet and too cool."

Zigzag planting

In some low-lying parts of his fields, standing rain water has drowned tomato plants. Sun-burned green fruit lies strewn on the ground like soldiers on a battlefield.

"This ground is rich, though," says Bauer, who tends about 10 acres, which he rents from a local landowner.

He uses the "French intensive bed" method, placing the plants zigzag fashion in raised beds about a yard wide. The method allows him to grow more plants in less space and makes picking faster. Bauer harvests most of his crops himself, with help from his teenage nephew and migrant workers.

"I can pick 500 pounds of tomatoes in about an hour and a half," he says.

Bauer walks on, dodging softball size Israeli melons and other muskmelons hiding in the foliage. Finally, he finds hope on higher ground. Cherry and grape tomatoes are ripening, and his heirloom varieties are blushing.

"Look, here's an Arkansas Traveler," he says, holding up a fat, round tomato. "I think this is a Howard's German."

A constant search for taste

Without row signs or tags, even he sometimes has trouble figuring out which tomato is which. In the winter, Bauer bought heirloom and old-fashioned tomato varieties on the Internet.

"I wasn't just looking for unusual tomatoes," he says. "I was looking for better-tasting tomatoes."

Often, the problem with these varieties, Bauer knows, is their appearance. The old varieties are sometimes misshapen, bearing clefts and "cat-face" scarring on their skins. So the challenge is for Bauer to convince customers - most who are accustomed to buying perfectly shaped and colored supermarket tomatoes, often grown hydroponically and gassed into ripeness - his ugly ducklings taste better than they look.

Back under the tent, where a big fan blows a refreshing breeze, Bauer has set out bite-size chunks of rosy Brandy Boy - a cross between common Big Boy and delicious heirloom Brandywine tomatoes - on a table for sampling. He even offers salt for seasoning.

Dolores convinces a woman customer to try a Brandy Boy sample. The woman nods approvingly as she tastes the tomato with a toothpick. Then she announces she doesn't like its looks.

"Sometimes, it doesn't matter what it tastes like," Bauer says. "Some people just have to have a perfect-looking tomato."

Later, another woman in shorts tastes the Brandy Boy and smiles.

"It's good, but it looks funny," she says. "But I think I'll buy a funny-looking one for my son. He'll love it."

Another small victory for the farmer in the 'burbs.

Recipes

Simple Tomato Salad

1 to 2 cored tomatoes, sliced thickly

1 sliced cucumber (optional)

1/2 sliced sweet onion (optional)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Balsamic or cider vinegar, to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

Sliced fresh basil

Place sliced tomatoes, cucumber and onion in large bowl. Add salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil to taste, and toss lightly. Portion salad on plate (s) and garnish with sliced basil. Makes 1 to 2 salads.

Best BLT

2 slices "Texas Toast"

Mayonnaise

[IMAGE]
1 medium tomato, cored and sliced thinly

Salt and black pepper, to taste (optional)

3 strips pepper bacon, cooked until crisp and drained

Several leaves romaine lettuce

Toast bread lightly. Spread one side of each slice with mayonnaise. Top one slice with sliced tomato and add sprinkle of salt and pepper, if desired. Add bacon and lettuce. Top with second bread slice and cut sandwich diagonally before serving. Makes 1 sandwich.

Raw Tomato Sauce with Basil

2 pounds firm ripe tomatoes

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

If skin of tomatoes is particularly tough, plunge them into boiling water for 5 seconds. Run cold water over tomatoes, then peel, core and dice them. Combine diced tomatoes with remaining ingredients. Allow to marinate for an hour before using. Makes 3 cups.

Cucina Fresca (Morrow; $17.95)

Tomato-Serrano Salsa

2 medium-small round tomatoes or 4 or 5 plum tomatoes, diced

3 to 5 fresh serrano chiles (to make salsa less fiery, remove some or all of seeds), finely chopped

Dozen or so sprigs cilantro, chopped finely

1 large garlic clove, chopped finely

1 small white onion, diced, rinsed under cold water and drained

11/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

About 3/4 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients, taste and add more salt and/or lime juice if needed. Makes about 2 cups.

Rich Bayless's Mexican Kitchen (Scribner; $35)

Bruschetta with Tomatoes and Mozzarella

4 slices firm dense bread, sliced about 3/4-inch thick

2 garlic cloves, sliced in half

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and black pepper

4 slices fresh mozzarella cheese, drained on paper towels

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes diced and drained,

Chopped fresh basil or arugula

Grill sliced bread a few minutes on each side, until crispy outside but firm inside. Rub one side of bread with garlic. Drizzle bread with olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Top mozzarella, spoonful tomatoes and sprinkle with basil or arugula. Add more olive oil, salt and pepper, if desired.

Buying, using tomatoes

• Buy tomatoes that are firm, richly colored and noticeably fragrant. They should be heavy for their size and give slightly to palm pressure.

• Store tomatoes, stem-side down, at room temperature away from direct sunlight. Use within a few days.

• Never refrigerate tomatoes. Cold temperatures make flesh pulpy and destroy the flavor.

• Ripen tomatoes by putting them with an apple in a paper bag pierced with a few holes. Let stand at room temperature 2 to 3 days.

• To peel tomato, skewer it with a fork and hold over a gas flame, turning it continually, for 30 to 60 seconds, until skin begins to split. Pull puckered skin off. The more common peeling method is to cut a shallow "x" at the bottom of the tomato. Immerse in boiling water for 5 to 10 seconds. Remove tomatoes from hot water and dunk in ice water. Peel should remove easily.

• Tomato slices hold their shape better and exude less juice if you slice vertically, from stem end to blossom end.

The Food Lover's Tiptionary (Hearst; $15)

Are your tomatoes best?

Here's the chance to prove your backyard tomatoes are the best. Texas-based NatureSweet is sponsoring a "Homegrown Tomato Challenge" 9-10 a.m. Saturday at a Kroger in West Chester Township (7855 Tylersville Road). The tomatoes will be judged on sweetness, color and flavor. The winning tomato grower gets $5,000 and four runners-up receive $250 each in Kroger gift certificates.

Anyone can enter by registering for the contest at Greater Cincinnati Kroger stores, or at www.naturesweettomatoes.com. Or, bring three samples of your tomatoes (all must be same variety) to the Kroger on Tylersville Road between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Saturday. More information: (800) 767-6789.

Be sharp

[IMAGE]
Tomato connoisseurs need special knives to carve summer's bounty. The Williams-Sonoma tomato knife ($15), top, has a serrated blade and oversized tip for transferring tomato slices to plate. Available from Williams-Sonoma catalog and www.williamssonoma.com. The more upscale Global tomato knife ($44) is also designed for slicing ripe tomatoes without squishing them. Available at Cooks Wares in Symmes Township, Liberty Township and Springboro.

Salt makes it better

Why do tomatoes taste better with a little salt?

Shirley Corriher, a chemist who specializes in food science and author of CookWise (Morrow; $30), says salt improves the flavor of tomatoes by diminishing a few subtle bitter notes in the fruit, actually making it taste sweeter.

"It's the same reason some pastry chefs use a pinch of salt when making desserts," she says, "and why some people sprinkle salt on cantaloupe."

Written resources

• The Great Tomato Book (Ten Speed; $14.95)

• 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden (Workman; $17.95)

• The Tomato Cookbook (Pelican; $14.95)

E-mail cmartin@enquirer.com




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