MOUNT FOREST ‒ If you've lived in Mount Forest over the last eight years, it's quite likely you've likely bought an heirloom tomato plant from Chris Davis.
Offering over 100 different types of heirloom tomato plants from his booth outside the Mount Forest NoFrills, the hobby-turned-business began after Davis, a Toronto-based butcher, retired and moved to the country.
"It just went hand and hand, the butchering and the gardening," said Davis. "It's still food, it's just produce."
Setting up shop in mid-May, Davis is known as 'The Heirloom Tomato Man' in most circles, earning his title from loyal customers after he would introduce his plants, but not himself.
“I did not know one thing about an heirloom tomato until I educated myself,” said Davis. “Any source that I could get to learn about an heirloom, I did it. And the customers kept coming back and those returning crowds got bigger and bigger.”
An heirloom tomato is a non-hybrid plant, with some seeds dating back to the 1800s. Unlike a “rubber tomato,” which is what Davis calls grocery store tomatoes, an heirloom tomato tastes sweeter and won’t have a white core when you cut it open.
“I’ve got to be fair, there are lots of hybrids that have been crossed over that are good,” said Davis. “But I deal mainly and solely in heirloom.”
Davis inherited his passion for heirloom tomatoes from his mother who was an avid gardener.
“She’d have hundreds (of tomatoes) planted and when I was four, I used to eat them right out of the garden,” said Davis. “She’d ask where they’d go and I’d lie but I’d be covered in tomato juice and seeds, all running down.”
When Davis started, he had 500 plants but that number has since tripled to 1,500.
“My tomatoes always sell out, you look at the numbers and it's overwhelming,” said Davis. “You need help and that’s the hard part. I need somebody to help me.”
Davis credits some of his success to his “special” potting mix, which combines egg shells, banana skins for potassium, Epsom salt (“less is more”), bone meal, rabbit poop and manure.
But even on a grey day, foot traffic is consistent and Davis connects with most passersby; a healthy mix of regulars and curious patrons.
“Everyone’s so glad you’re here,” said a frequent customer, calling out on her way into the grocery store. “I was reading all about it on Facebook.”
When Davis first set up shop in Mount Forest, most of his customers were just as clueless about the product as he had been.
“The gentlemen would not try a black tomato, would not, so I would give them away to get them to just try it,” said Davis. “They would buy their red tomato then I’d go ‘Here’s a free black one, trust me.’”
One new customer, Lesley Rose, bought four large tomato plants for his son, Ashton Jackson, but left with five.
“I’ve never grown tomatoes (but) I live in the country,” said Rose. “So we thought, you know what, let’s get a line of tomatoes and see what happens.”
Davis’ tomato plants go for $5 apiece but new customers almost always walk away with one free. Davis also offers a “mistakes happen” guarantee so that customers who plant too early or accidentally kill their plant can get a discount on their replacements.
“My wife loves tomatoes and she always gets mad when we don’t get them so if I grow them, problem solved,” said Rose. “I’d just walked out of the grocery store and realized we didn’t buy tomatoes so this is going to be good, maybe I’ll be the hero when we get home.”
When Davis isn't outside the Mount Forest NoFrills, he offers liquidation deals on his tomatoes at the Harriston Agricultural Fair alongside peppers, flowers, and castor beans.
Isabel Buckmaster is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for GuelphToday. LJI is a federally-funded program.