Blog by Bryan Hay
There’s nothing quite like biting into a ripe, sun-warmed tomato and letting a spray of juice and seeds running down your chin or experiencing the citrusy, flavorful fire from a lemon drop pepper. The sensation is heightened tenfold if it’s an heirloom tomato or hot pepper from Meadow View Farm in Bowers, part of Pennsylvania’s Americana Region. It’s a must stop for us whenever we’re in the Kutztown area, a 70-acre paradise for anyone who craves more than run-of-the-mill hybrid tomato varieties and a bright array of hot peppers so colorful they’d light up a Christmas tree.
Jim Weaver is the patriarch of the family-owned and -operated Meadow View Farm, which has been growing and selling heirloom tomatoes and peppers since the 1990s. With an infectious smile under the brim of his straw hat, he’s a gentle soul who cares as much about interacting with his customers as growing unusual vegetables.
The farm, including a classic 118-foot-long stone Swiss bank barn, dates to the early 19th century. Weaver purchased the farm in 1978 and ran it for several years as a general farm before expanding into vegetables in 1987.
When he started reading about heirloom tomatoes in seed catalogs, he picked up on the growing appetite for them among chefs and connoisseurs who were searching for more intense flavor and variety for their menus.
“It was a slow start, but people started coming back to the farm asking for more varieties,” Weaver said, taking a break from field work on a hot, muggy summer afternoon to talk about his passion. “The next thing you know the hot pepper craze came along.”
He credits the cultural diversity in Berks County for inspiring him to grow hot peppers and cultivate heirloom tomatoes. “People who settled here from all over the world started bringing me tomato or pepper seeds from their homeland and asking me, sometimes insisting, to grow them,” he said. “They say, ‘I remember this pepper or this tomato from my childhood,’ and ask me to grow it for them. How can you say no?”
Weaver maintains a separate field for growing seeds that are brought to him or requested by customers hoping to reconnect with the flavors they experienced in their grandmother’s kitchen. He also grows sweet corn and other vegetables. “The flavor is what people want,” he says. “They want the tastes they remember.”
Meadow View Farm grows more than 200 varieties of hot peppers, culinary and ornamental, 75 varieties of sweet peppers, and more than 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for slicing and sauce. He sells his produce to Wegmans, Trader Joe’s and to restaurants from Boston to Washington, D.C.
His keen interest in hot peppers eventually inspired the annual Chile Pepper Food Festival at William DeLong Memorial Park in Bowers and at Meadow View Farm. The 22nd annual festival will be September 8th and 9th, 9am – 6pm, rain or shine
Weaver also offers heirloom eggplants and has been selling more and more varieties of sweet peppers, including some he has encountered from customers with roots in eastern Europe.
Like many of Meadow View’s customers, we buy tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant plants in spring straight from the greenhouse and enjoy the bold flavors in a harvest that often extends into fall.
It’s our delight choosing from the plants’ whimsical names — heirloom tomatoes called Boxcar Willie, Big Zebra, Mr. Stripey, Hillbilly, Mortgage Lifter or Radiator Charlie; hot peppers come with names such as Hinkle Hatz, Pretty in Purple, Kaleidoscope, Ring of Fire, Time Bomb or Biker Billy. It’s hard to resist plants with such playful names, and we often overdo it.
A pepper that Weaver has grown for years but never attracted much interest is experiencing a rediscovery — the green Japanese Shishito pepper. He recommends pan frying them in olive oil until golden brown and adding sea salt and blue cheese. As far as heirloom tomatoes, Weaver’s favorite is the low-acid Green Zebra; the darker the color of the tomato, the more intense the tomato flavor, he says. The Cherokee purple is a favorite among his customers. “People start out with heirloom varieties they know, like the Pink Brandywine, and then try other varieties from there,” Weaver says. “The heirloom tomato is what a tomato was meant to be because it’s bred for flavor, not for size and longevity.”
As the afternoon sun started to lower, you could sense that he wanted to get back to his work. Sauce tomatoes are soon coming in, and he’ll be picking 50-100 cases of them a week. Asked what gives him the most joy, he says “seeing my customers and hearing their stories and watching their excitement when they bring me seeds.”
Plan to attend the Chile Pepper Food Fest. A feature of the fest is field excursions to picking peppers and tomatoes at Meadowview Farm.