Know what grows best: How Clark Fruit and Vegetables evolved from barrel making to tomato farming
Tomato – tomahto: It doesn’t matter how you say it, the Clarks know how to grow it
In the heart of Appalachia, in Ohio near the West Virginia border, with the mighty Ohio river flowing nearby, the Clark family knows what grows best on the land that has been in the family for five generations: Tomatoes.
Talk a little bit about your family farming history
In the 1880s, my ancestors were barrel makers, shipping apples down the Ohio River, said Drew Clark.
The relatives on his grandmother’s side, who were named Kaiser, made barrels to ship apples but they always seemed to have more barrels than apples so they decided to grow their own apples – to balance out the barrel to apple ratio.
The orchard continued to be the family business for the next 80 years, until Drew Clark’s grandfather discovered he was really good at growing tomatoes.
And since the 1960s, the Clark family has done just that – with a few other crops sprinkled in.
What makes your family farm unique?
In the area where we are, there are very few large farms. In fact, we might be the only one. There are hobby farms around us, but Proctorville, Ohio is not a place known for large farm operations. The land had been orchards for years but my grandfather in the 1960s started to grow tomatoes, so we progressed further and now tomatoes are our largest crop. We do some sweet corn, peaches and a few other things, but we are limited due to our terrain.
But what really sets us apart is that we pay attention to detail and we really pride ourselves on quality. We only send out the best tomatoes we grow – the top quality. There are no subpar tomatoes here – only premium.
Also, we focus on growing what we are good at growing. Some farmers don’t want to specialize in one crop, or a few crops. But we realized we were really good at growing tomatoes, so we focus on tomatoes.
Talk a little about your tomato growing process
We grow our tomatoes in two ways. We have two acres in high tunnels and then we have a few acres in raised beds with plastic mulch that includes trickle irrigation. We don’t grow in bare dirt. The open field tomatoes start ripening at the end of May and we usually have tomatoes until late November, but the goal is to be out of the tomato business by Thanksgiving.
What’s your seasonal growing schedule?
We start growing in the spring, planting tomatoes, corn and pumpkins. We also have peaches. So, the tomatoes start ripening in late May and we have them until November. We have peaches in July until September and then sweet corn then at the same time. In September until October, we have pumpkins. We sell it all at our own farm stand and also to wholesalers.
Tell us about the members of your modern family farm
My dad, Allen Clark, still works here. He works on the equipment and some field operations. My mother, Patricia Clark, helps on the retail side, like the farm stand. My wife, Ann Clark, runs the packing house and then there’s me, Drew, and I do the managerial side and I’m also the main problem solver. I think it’s fair to say I’m the jack of all trades. My wife and I have two children, 7-year-old Edie and 10-year-old Mac and they don’t have jobs. Yet. But they are around and do what they can.
How has Fresh Forward helped your business?
It’s been great being a part of a co-op because it has helped get us into new markets outside of our immediate area. I would say since we have been members, we’ve increased about 20% of the tomatoes we sell to wholesalers and it’s also allowed us to get a better price for our crops as well, so that’s been fantastic.
Talk to us about how you came to the family business
As a double major in math and chemistry, I didn’t expect to be helping to run the family farm. But I graduated in 2006 and there were no jobs so I started working for my dad. I liked the work; I grew up doing it. And then, it just stuck.
And as an only child, it helps continue the family farm tradition. I’m not sure what the plan is going forward. I don’t want to pressure my kids into working here. If they love it and want to, then I would love for it to continue. But it’ll be their choice.
What skills do you have that makes you successful at farming?
As a math person, I have an analytical mind. I also have an attention to detail and I like the numbers. I like the data. I like the stats and the history. I am always up for small tweaks, using the scientific method, keeping up on things like soil and sap testing. I don’t skip steps and I don’t go through the motions. I’m data-driven.
Farming is a science. That’s how I approach it. I don’t even really like to get my hands in the dirt. That’s not what it is about for me.
After more than 100 years farming the same land, the Clark family is focused on quality
Clark Fruit and Vegetable Farm is located at 14995 State Route 7 in Proctorville, Ohio. It’s run by the Clark family and specializes in tomatoes, with sweet corn, peaches and pumpkins – and a few other fruits and vegetables — also available.
Fresh Forward is a family farm cooperative representing members who grow, package and distribute apples and other produce across the Great Lakes region. Founded in 1957, our vertically-integrated organization continues to lead the way in buyer education, product brokering and purchasing, quality control and safety standards. We foster strong partnerships with produce growers who have cultivated their land for generation after generation. Together, we remain rooted in our commitment to deliver fresh, healthy produce to our consumers’ plates.