Family Heirlooms: For Barrie Moser, prize produce is a labor of love
Better known to locals as the “Tomato Man” at the Downtown State College Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Fridays, it’s hard to miss Barrie Moser’s vegetable truck with the name Moser’s Garden Produce handpainted across the side. Moser’s motto is, “if we don’t grow it, we don’t sell it.”
“We initially started in 1976 with a half-acregarden, a few dozen fruit trees, and some grapevines,” explains Moser. “Over the years, we have expanded to farm about 6-and-a-half acres, and put up four high tunnels (greenhouses) where we grow our heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. We have also planted more than 100 apple trees as well as some pear, plum, and peach trees.”
Originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, both his grandfather and father were dairy farmers; so naturally, Moser came to Penn State to pursue a degree in animal science and a master’s degree in dairy nutrition. After graduation, he worked at Penn State in dairy ration formulations and soil testing for 35 years, retiring in 2008. In addition to his job at the university, in the early years of Moser’s Garden Produce, Barrie and his wife, Mandy, would plant and farm their property in Centre Hall, picking produce at night to sell at the market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings in Bellefonte.
If you have never had an heirloom tomato, you are missing out. Just one taste and you are instantly hooked. Out of his inventory of 320 different tomato seeds, Moser is growing more than 200 varieties this year. He has a remarkable memory and knowledge about his tomatoes, describing each one in great detail, noting their individual size, color, and taste.
“We started growing heirloom tomatoes that we purchased from seed from places like Sand Hill Preservation and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in 1997. In the beginning, we had 30 varieties and it went wild!” says Moser. “Before the tomatoes, we were known as the ‘Pepper People’ and we still grow 60 varieties of peppers and many varieties that you won’t find anywhere else.”
In addition to bell and sweet peppers, Moser grows jalapeños, habaneros, serranos, and other super-hot peppers such as ghost peppers, Trinidad scorpions, and Carolina reapers, which according to Guinness World Records is the hottest chili in the world. “I have customers who will buy these hot peppers by the bushels,” he says.
Moser is one of the few farmers in Centre County who grows heirloom tomatoes and vegetables. Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or tomato varieties that are more than 50 years in circulation. Heirloom tomatoes have an incomparable eating quality and flavor that surpasses many modern varieties, but they require more attention from the grower, and are typically lower yielding than modern hybrids. The thin skin that contributes to their fine eating quality can also predispose them to being damaged more easily than thicker-skinned varieties.
Some of the most famous heirloom tomato varieties that Moser grows include Brandywine, Green Zebra, Yellow Pear, Hillbilly, Cherokee Purple, Hawaiian Pineapple, Big Rainbow, and Chocolate Cherry. For home gardeners who want to grow his heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables, his plants are available for purchase at the farmers market.
It’s truly a labor of love for the Mosers. Barrie, 67, begins germinating the seeds indoors in February and transplanting them in his high tunnels by early April. “Peppers take anywhere from 110 to 120 days to mature, but they grow differently in a high tunnel, sometimes up to 6 feet or more tall and are loaded with peppers,” says Moser. “So, we start our peppers when it’s frigid outside and heat our high tunnels with a wood burner. I have to go out a few times a night to put more wood in them.”
Fans are also installed in the high tunnels to circulate the inside air and to exhaust the hot air. Lights are installed as well to enable the Mosers to pick at night before the market.
“When our kids were young, they would help us pick and we grew a lot more produce. At one point, we had potatoes, beans, and over 2,000 strawberry plants; now we have 225 strawberry plants,” Barrie says.
The Mosers’ kids have all grown up with jobs and busy lives, so all the farming and picking is now done by Barrie and Mandy. Somehow, they find the time to plant 60 varieties of peppers, 200 varieties of tomatoes, not to mention herbs, lettuce, cucumber, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and squash.
They also make berry jellies and fresh-pressed apple-raspberry cider to sell at the market. During the harvest season, there will be apples, pears, and berries for sale as well. “We have close to 28 varieties of apples, including an heirloom variety called Smokehouse that just has amazing fruity flavor, but I am really excited for my new Royal Red Honeycrisps that ripens earlier and will have a deep red blush color.”
Over the years, the Mosers have formed close relationships with many of their loyal customers and have been known to grow specific vegetables, like specialty eggplants, for them. “We really enjoy talking to our customers and many will tell us about different varieties of vegetables that they want us to grow, and some have even brought us seeds to plant for them.”
Moser’s vegetables have won numerous awards over the years at the Centre County Grange Fair. In 2016, he won first place in 31 vegetable categories, including for nine of his peppers and three of his tomatoes. His tomatoes have also won Best of Show for three years at the Grange Fair.
There is nothing in the world Moser would rather do than get out on his land, pick his blueberries and other crops, all the while listening to the birds. “Time flies when I am out here picking. One early morning, I came out here to pick and before I knew it, my wife came down and said, ‘It’s 3 o’clock, Barrie, do you want to eat something?’ I enjoy it very much!” he says with a chuckle.
Stop every Tuesday and Friday at the Downtown State College Farmers Market on Locust Lane from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It’s not uncommon to find a huge crowd in front of the giant table filled with tomatoes of all colors. Check out for yourself all the wonderful vegetables Barrie and Mandy Moser have picked fresh the night before!
Green Tomato Dumpling recipe from Barrie Moser
For the green tomato dumpling, we use an apple peeler that cores and spiral slices the fruit. I doubt that peeling of green tomato is necessary but the spiral slicing and coring result in a more desirable end product.
We make a standard pie crust recipe of flour, Crisco, water and a pinch of salt. To the rolled crust, cut into 6" squares.
(Usually the crust and filling recipe will make 8 dumplings)
We set the peeled, cored tomato, and then pour into the core a mixture of:
1 cup corn starch
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
The corners are then folded up and pinched close and baked on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
It is amazing how much the green tomato dumplings taste like apple dumplings!