Atop the supposedly highest point in Kansas City, Kan., Shawnee Mission East junior Eli Kurlbaum crouches down on the hay and reaches through a thin wire cage to grab an heirloom tomato. He throws it in his crate and scoots down to the next plant to snag another. He glances over at the row next to him and sees two of his brothers, Noah and Max, and his mom Liz also hard at work. They’ve been here all morning, and in the midst of the sticky July heat, nothing sounds better than an ice water.
But then a huge rotten tomato slams into his back – squishy, heavy and disgusting. Eli whips around to find the culprit and discovers freshman Noah smirking. But not for long, as Eli retaliates with an even juicier rotten tomato.
Moments like these are the ones that Eli looks forward to every other day in the summer, the days he spends his mornings picking and afternoons delivering. The ones that, through all their hard work and commitment, make the Kurlbaum family both successful and complete.
The family has been growing heirloom tomatoes since 1987 — the first ones to grow this type in Kansas City — starting with only 50 tomato plants. Now, they’ve worked their way up to 3,000 plants and other crops such as corn, cabbage, beets and plenty of flowers. Since both Eli’s parents, Sky and Liz, grew up surrounded by farming, they are aware of the hard work it encompasses. But when the whole family is involved, it’s no longer a painful chore.
“I know we could never do this [without each other],” Liz said. “My skill alone wouldn’t be enough to run the business, [Sky’s] skill alone [or] my sister’s, so together we make a really powerful team.”
In addition to his regular job as a lawyer, Sky handles the marketing side and designs and manages their website. Liz is in charge of sales and contacts chefs to see if they’d be interested in purchasing tomatoes. A task she starts soon after Christmas, Liz’s sister, Sally, researches which tomato varieties to grow by eagerly looking through seed catalogs from Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
Every year, the Kurlbaums grow about 35-40 varieties: approximately 8-10 are crowd favorites and 15-20 are tested by the family to see if they’ll be the next new craving.
The team mentality carries out through the tomato growing process. First, Sky starts germinating the seeds in a few trays under an artificial light in the basement, keeping an eye on them until they grow to about two inches tall, large enough to transplant to the farm greenhouse. Then Liz, Sally and the children take over getting them in the ground. Working to get orders out that same day, harvesting the plants is the main part of the operation. They get there at 8 a.m., pick until 2 or 3 p.m., then deliver before the dinner rush. Typically the Kurlbaums themselves pick the tomatoes, but sometimes an occasional friends comes along for the day.
The Kurlbaums dry farm, meaning they don’t water the plants, to order to make their tomatoes extra flavorful and not taste too watery. Instead, rainwater is the tomatoes’ only source of water.
But the real key to their success is one characteristic: heirloom. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t hybridized or genetically modified.
“Hybridized tomatoes are the ones you see in Price Chopper or Hen House,” Eli said. “They’re all red. They’re all the same shape. The difference is that they don’t bruise very easily, and they stay ripe for a long time. Heirloom tomatoes are more fragile, but they also taste better.”
It’s that taste that keeps chefs and customers coming back for more; local restaurants, including Capital Grill, Extra Virgin and Brio, feature Kurlbaum tomatoes in their dishes. One of the first chefs who tried the heirlooms was Jasper Mirabile, owner of Jasper’s Restaurant, and he’s been a devoted follower ever since.
“[The first time I saw one] I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were,” Mirabile said. “Then I cut into them, and I took the first bite. And as a chef it’s pretty hard to overwhelm me, and I took one bite and I said ‘Oh my god, this is going to be one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten.’”
About eight years ago, Mirabile started hosting five-course dinners, some with all five courses including tomatoes, which he christened “Experiences.” Last year, Mirabile and the Kurlbaums worked together to extend the events beyond the restaurant and hosted three at the farm. Now people can enjoy gourmet meals with local produce while overlooking scenic pastures and forests.
However, there is a downside to raving reviews and high demand – sometimes orders can’t be filled. As a result, the family is considering expanding and growing more plants, requiring the family to put even more hours in, or hire extra help.
Another option for expansion is having their tomatoes delivered to doorsteps by Shatto Milk’s new grocery delivery plan. But a recent partnership made with nearby Riverview Nursery ensures stability for now.
Riverview Nursery has only about 1,000 tomato plants, but farming is all the owners Mike and Krissy Murray do. In years past, the couple wasn’t able to sell all their crops, so the Kurlbaums agreed to help them out, bringing that loving family feel to another farm. Now the Kurlbaums buy the Murray’s excess tomatoes, then sell them with their own.
But it’s not the free food at restaurants or profits or even fresh produce that makes it all worth it after those long, tiring days. It’s the fact that the Kurlbaums do this together, step by step, with each other, with their family.
“At times there’s disagreements, but since we are a family, we steam about it, get over it, get back together and respect each other’s differences,” Liz said.