Life in Healdsburg Sonoma County

Dan the Tomato Man: Soda Rock Farm

After I interviewed Mateo Granados last June, I always stop by his tamale stand at the Farmer’s Market to say hello. He’s always happy and chatty and talking to someone or another. One day, I was just hanging out and Dan Magnuson of Soda Rock Farm comes over to drop off a few boxes of his tomatoes. Mateo immediately says to me: “Here’s one guy you have to talk to. His tomatoes, mmmmuah… ” He kisses his fingers and releases them into the air, in a typical chef-sort-of-way. And he introduces us.

I talk to Dan a bit, and talk to him a few times before we actually make a time to meet. But we meet one morning at the Costeaux Bakery Cafe. He sits down and says: “So. What do you want to talk about?”

I’m prepared: “Tomatoes”, I say.

He smiles: “Well. That’s a pretty big subject.”

I narrow it down: “Your tomatoes? Tell me about your tomatoes.”

That doesn’t do much good. I guess it’s just too big of topic. I ask him some more rhetorical questions.

“When did you start growing tomaotes?” and “Why tomaotes?”

He says he started growing tomatoes about 10 years ago out on his property in Alexander Valley. He’d taken a class at the Santa Rosa Junior college in agriculture. He just liked tomatoes. And I also find out he’s a tennis pro. During the winter months, he teaches tennis athletes at the Charlie Schultz indoor tennis courts.

Tennis and tomatoes. That’s our man. He’s an expert at both.

He started out with an acre out on Alexander Valley and about 3000 plants. He now farms both his property and four to five acres in Dry Creek Valley. Today’s stats are approximately 20,000 tomato plants, 15,000 basil plants, and 1000 lemon cucumber plants.

Soda Rock Tomatoes : Ready for market

I ask him how many tomatoes does 20,000 tomato plants produce (I was looking for tonnage or something–I don’t know how you measure tomatoes). He blinked and looked back at me: “A lot.”

He grows between 35 and 40 different varietals, but his mainstay is red beefsteak.

“Do you have any secrets to growing tomatoes.? His eyes are smiling as he tells me — “Trial and error.” He’s been doing it for 10 years, he just figured out what worked and what didn’t. He knows that’s not what I asked and follows up by saying: “Would you give your secrets away?” But he does explain a bit further.

“I grow in Dry Creek Valley. What’s good for the grapes is good for my tomatoes.” Which turns out to be sandy loam soil and sunlight. He also tells me it’s important to plant at the right time, and pick at the right time (which I guess isn’t really anything new.) He plants in April and May (depending on the weather) and the harvest is ready by mid-July through October.

He tells me about staking the plants so they grow up-not out. He tells me about watering them until they’re ripe, then stopping the water before the skins split. He tells me about figuring out how to do things right and making those things repeatable year after year.

He also says that he only grows the tomato varietals he likes. He tried others once, but the fruit could tell he didn’t really like that variety. His customers could tell he didn’t really like that variety–so he just decided he’d never do that again.

I ask him if there is such a thing as a tomato competition. He laughs and said certainly. One year he won awards in five categories from the Kendall Jackson Tomato Festival: aroma, all other colors, orange & yellow, red, and cherry.

He started by selling his tomatoes to high-end restaurants. Bistro Ralph here in Healdsburg was his first. Over the years, Underwood Bar and Bistro and Willow Wood Market Cafe in Gratton sell his tomaotes, Syrah and Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa. His latest account is Cyrus Restaurant here in Healdsburg. He also does most Farmer’s Markets in the area. I’ll have to check specifically. His tomatoes are also in some produce markets. I noticed them in Big John’s the other day and out at the JimTown Store. And, he tells me later–the Pacific Market in Santa Rosa.

If you’d like to try his tomatoes in more of a social setting, Bovolo Restaurant featuring his tomatoes in one of their BIG NIGHT dinners on Sunday, 14 September 2008. Here’s the menu:

black pig bacon BLT PANZANELLA
rosemary rubbed PRIME RIB / tomatoes / white corn / fingerling potatoes / salsa verde,
TOMATO + WATERMELON SORBETTO / candied mint + basil / cornmeal shortbread

Let me know if you go. And let me know what you think about it. Minimally, let Dan know what you think of his tomatoes–leave a comment.

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Comments (2)

  1. To whom, I bought a couple of tomato’s at your booth in Santa Rosa across from the fairgrounds, a young Lady was assisting me and also gave me information on where I could buy some seeds as well as soil mix, I do only my back yard not interested in selling, just love to garden and etc, I use every bit of land, fruit trees etc. would it be possible to come to your farm and observe and gain information on planting, it would be most appreciated, I am retired. again thanks so much
    Don Rodrigo