Dan Waber is obsessed with two things: tomatoes and tinned fish.
Three years ago, he and his wife Jennifer bought a farm in East Greenville, PA, where they almost exclusively grow hundreds of organic and heirloom tomatoes. The Montgomery County property also includes a farm stand that sells the tomatoes they grow and a barn (dubbed The Wunderbarn) that hosts various events and live entertainment. Dan is a former Executive Chef, Jennifer is an arts educator, and her daughter Helen is a baker and an artist.
Since his organically grown tomato harvest has a short season, he expanded into a year-round operation by offering tinned fish for sale on his website and shipping out across the country. In fact, it could be the most extensive tinned fish and seafood collection on the world wide web! Either way, Waber is a tinned fish aficionado and is helping people discover the world of tinned fish beyond sardines, or expand their existing appreciation and experiences.
In this Q&A, I asked Dan to tell me about growing over 300 varieties of tomatoes and his love of turning others on to the magic of tinned fish or conservas (Spanish for foods preserved in cans or jars.)
Congrats on the 3rd year for the tomato stand! I see you have tomato plants available, and you’re gearing up for another season.
Yes, this is our 3rd season of growing tomatoes. Ripe fruits will start to be available starting around the end of July. August is when they’re coming in strong. And if the weather cooperates, we may have tomatoes into September. Our season is shorter than most because we don’t use chemicals, not even organically approved chemicals. We also don’t use any plastic in the field. Most growers grow under high plastic tunnels, put down plastic weed suppressing fabric, run plastic irrigation tubing, and trellis their tomatoes with poly twine and plastic clips. We don’t irrigate. The tomatoes get the moisture they need when it rains and nothing more. We believe they respond to the stress of having to work for their water by creating flavor compounds, just like herbs, grapes, and fruits. We grow for flavor, not for season length, not for yield, not for maximizing profit.
Tell me more about the varieties. Will there be more or fewer varieties of tomatoes this year? What has been the public’s reception to such an extensive selection?
The amount of variety will be the same or greater this year but counted differently. For the first two years, we started 320 varieties from seeds. We planted 640 plants the first year (two of each) and over a thousand the second year (a skewed mix of two new varieties, three of each returning variety, and four to six popular ones or favorites).
Every year is the learning year, and we’re always looking for ways to improve the product and the process. This year, we’re doing it differently for a few reasons. We discovered after the first season that 320 is too much. People can’t cope with that many options. At first, only the earliest tomatoes from the earliest varieties were available, and people loved being able to choose from dozens of kinds. Then as more started to become ripe, we noticed customer behaviors changing. Over about a hundred, people started joking about being overwhelmed. Over about 150, people couldn’t shop on their own until we’d told them a few kinds that were “the best” (there are no “best” tomatoes, they’re all just slightly different)–they were convincing themselves that with so many choices, some must be bad choices. They didn’t have the experience to make intelligent choices. Over 180 varieties, people began to display signs of discomfort and anxiety. And over 200, we started having people leave without buying anything because of an inability to decide.
That must have been frustrating. What was your solution? What else have you learned from your tomato growing operation?
In the second year, we grew the same amount of variety but never put more than 60 or 70 different kinds on the tables. Then we’d replenish throughout the day.
Another exciting thing happened in the second year. Volunteer plants came up in the field, the seeds from fruit that had fallen the year previously. There’s no way to know what, specifically, those plants were. Tomatoes will self-pollinate. They might be true to the original plant.
Of course, we grew hybrids, too. And tomatoes are prolific “outcrossers,” meaning that if a bee goes from one plant to another, it would freely cross into new varieties. The plants were robust and really wanted to live, and there were thousands and thousands of them in the fields. We discovered over lunch one day that we each had developed an affection for these volunteer plants, and we would weed around certain ones. We started moving volunteer plants into spots that became vacant when a “pamperloin” didn’t make it. That was our word for the plants started from seeds indoors, under lights, in climate-controlled tents, and then later hardened off to the outside and full sun. Many of them didn’t survive the process, but the volunteer plants knew when to sprout and were vigorous plants. So we protected some, moved some into empty spots, and started harvesting when they made tomatoes.
The tomatoes were all exceptionally good; we didn’t know their names–and in many cases, they were tomatoes that had never existed before, so they didn’t even have names. We simply called them all “curious”, combined them into colorful mixed baskets, and charged the same price per pound as the named varieties (which we keep separated and with their names at all times).
Do you grow anything else at the farm?
Tomatoes are the only crop we grow in sufficient amounts to say so. We also grow a bunch of things for ourselves, and in the stand, there are sometimes extra summer squash, peppers, cucumbers, and stuff like that. But we are not a vegetable market, just tomatoes. And this year, we have planted many more flowers which we might offer some cut flowers: zinnias and sunflowers. So, we’ll see how that goes.
When did the tinned fish shop start?
The first year we didn’t have a plan for what would happen after the tomatoes stopped coming in; we were too busy trying to learn how to cultivate the tomatoes. Then when tomato season was over, people kept coming to the stand and asking, “Well, what else do you have?” So we started branching out. First, Jenny and Helen did everything necessary to get certified as a limited food establishment, which allows for items to be produced in a home kitchen for resale. Helen is a trained pastry chef who came to help us out when we were overwhelmed by tomatoes, and the pandemic was raging, so no catering was happening. So she started doing baked goods, which has been a big success. Jenny is an educator and performance artist (among other things), so events were happening in the barn (which we dubbed The Wunderbarn) and turned into a stage with lights and sound. Then I said, “Well, what will I do?”
I started sourcing things that went along with tomatoes. People would say as they were leaving with a sack of tomatoes, “I just need some salt, and I’m in heaven!” so I started bringing in a lovely flake salt. People would argue over the best mayo for a tomato sandwich, Hellman’s or Duke’s, and I’d break it up by telling them that the best is Japanese-made Kewpie mayonnaise. So I sourced that and started bringing it in. As I was getting connected with various suppliers of these gourmet items, I found one with a small selection of tinned seafood from Spain, and I thought, “I love this stuff…will anyone buy tinned seafood from a tomato stand?” Worth a shot, right? So I brought in a case of four different fish, just to see. Everything sold out in two days. So I said, “Huh. That’s interesting.” And I took all the revenue, replaced the four cases, and added some more. It sold out entirely in 5 days! I just kept doing that, understanding that I’d stop adding new items when people stopped buying them. They never stopped. And now, we have quite possibly the world’s largest selection, and it’s still growing.
Without getting into exact numbers, how do your sales look?
They’re enough. And that’s been our goal from the beginning. We bought this property with the plan to age in place here. We knew we wanted to grow something as our source of income but didn’t know what. We wanted to wait until we found the property and let it tell us what it wanted to do. We started with how much we needed to make and worked from there. Our goal is not to get as big as we possibly can. Our goal is to have enough to live our life. From the beginning, people would tell us we should sell wholesale; we should sell at farmer’s markets; we should sell sauce tomatoes by the bushel. All of these things would require us to plant more. But we can’t do more than we do now. And as long as we sell out of what we plant (which we do, we sell out most days by about 2 pm or so), we’re doing okay.
You started a “first taste is free” program to introduce people to the glory of conversas. Do you think it’s creating a new crop of tinned fish lovers?
It is a complete and total success by any metric. There is no question that it’s creating a new crop of tinned fish lovers. The products are delicious. Most people who don’t like them have never tried them. And most people who have never tried them, when asked why, will point to some vague, non-specific belief that they’re “gross” or “yucky.” When pressed to try and recall where that belief comes from, people often say they have no idea; it’s just something they’ve “always” believed.
The offer for a completely free, no-risk tinned fish product chosen by someone who won’t send them something terrible is enough to get some people to test their beliefs. Imagine spending your whole life thinking donuts were yucky, without really knowing why, and then trying one for the first time because a donut shop gave you a free sample—same thing.
How does the “free tinned fish” offering work?
The special promotion is for people who have never tried tinned fish and want to try tinned fish but are hesitant. It is for the tin-curious but afraid. It’s a simple, no-barrier entry to the spectacular world of conservas! First, you select what you think you might like, then tell us a little about why you want to try it and what you think is at the root of your hesitancy.
What do you offer to folks who already have some experience with tinned fish but want to branch out and explore more?
Since we now offer over 500 items, it can lead to decision paralysis. To help customers overcome that, we also provide an Upgrade Me option, allowing people to name their price (minimum $9) for fancier fish, then I will hand select a fancy tin for them. After placing the Upgrade Me order, the customer will receive a couple of questions to get a sense of what they’ve had and their expectations.
How else do you help customers select from your large inventory of conservas?
With the addition of the Upgrade Me offering, I realized we also need to have a full-on decision tree for people who don’t know what they want. It starts with “are you shopping for yourself or are you buying a gift” and bifurcates until they find what they want. I have created a tinned fish buying guide (complete with a spreadsheet!) for buying tinned fish where customers can search, sort, and learn about all the products we carry. They can search and sort by attributes such as texture, flavor, and price range. This decider has been very helpful, and a corresponding survey helps people select the best tin for them (or if they are buying it as a gift for someone else.)
We also offer extensively curated lists of tins to try and why.
I see you also offer taste testings at the farm!
Yes, every Saturday and Sunday we set up accoutrements and will gladly open tins to let guests try tinned fish for the first time or to explore some new types. No charge. Because, so far, 100% of the people who try the tins we suggest end up loving them and they walk away happy!
I’m curious about your culinary background—what is your experience in the industry?
I went to a small liberal arts college in Illinois with a work program where the students did everything but teaching—all the new construction, the campus maintenance, everything. I worked in the kitchen. My experience with bulk food preparation made it easy to land a job between semesters. I worked in the Chicago area in private clubs and hotels for about ten years and a little over a million meals. When I started, I was a swing-shift prep cook. When I left the industry, I was Executive Chef and Director of Food & Beverage for a brand new private golf club, where I designed the kitchen and co-wrote the opening menu. I have maintained a passion for quality cooking, superior ingredients, and the highest service levels ever since.
To learn more and keep up on the latest tomato harvest news and tinned fish operations, follow Dan on Instagram as @rainbowtomatoesgarden and @conservasservingsuggestions.
2979 Kutztown Road
East Greenville, PA 18041
The farm stand is open seasonally from April 1st through Thanksgiving, Wednesday to Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. It is closed during the winter, but pick-up orders are possible by making a prior arrangement.
Please note: since the peak of tomato season is August, and they sell out most days, people should call or text 570-762-6140 before making a road trip of any distance if not able to get to the farm when it opens at 9am.
Please tag me if you visit this tomato farm in Mongomery County, PA!
Also, let me know in the comments if you are already a fan of tinned fish and what your favorites are!
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