'Ada Tomato Lady' keeps things sweet with helpings of hospitality
ADA, Minn. – Sheila Capistran hops up from the kitchen table to grab her "tomato box."
The foot-long, open-top wooden box holds her entire tomato garden.
"When I was a little kid, 10 years old, I remember saving a tomato, and I even have that in here—E, F, G—Gardener's Delight," she says, ticking through alphabetized packets. "I saved the seed and planted it the next year and thought that I had just sent a person to the moon. I thought, 'Whoa, wait till the world hears about this.' But that's how it was, you discover things for yourself."
In the 41 years since Capistran first saved a tomato seed, she's become the Ada Tomato Lady, selling her produce around the region.
On her 5-acre farm seven miles outside of Ada, Capistran, 51, grows 40 varieties of tomatoes, along with 20 varieties of peppers, plus herbs, eggplants, artichokes and whatever else she feels like planting.
But the tomatoes are her primary crop, and she started her business, Ada Tomato, in 2001.
First, she gave the fruits to friends, and then people started offering to buy the plants, too. She began trading seeds with people and planting different varieties, growing the business each season.
Capistran typically harvests 600 pounds of tomatoes each summer and sells them at various places in Minnesota and North Dakota, including Ada's Friday morning farmers market at Laughing Earth Garden & Gift, 703 E. Thorpe Ave., where she's the plant manager.
"I was growing a few varieties and then more and more. I had to make more and more friends, holy buckets, I had so many tomatoes," Capistran says.
A lover of puns, she pronounces "tomato" so it rhymes with "Ada"—"Ada Tom-aid-a." The heirloom tomatoes range from small, dark red cherries to striped green, traditional red and every other hue and combination in between.
Heirloom means the tomatoes are grown from seeds that gardeners or farmers save from previous years, Capistran explains.
"Heirloom means it's the original way of growing things," she says. "You grow it, you save the seed from it and then you plant it again the next season. And then you grow it, save the seed, et cetera. Farmers have done that and still do it."
Her oldest variety is the Gardener's Delight seeds from the 1970s that she saved as a child growing up in northern Minnesota. Other varieties come from friends and seed companies. Each spring, she trades with friend and master gardener Mara Volker Trygstad of Fargo. The women play "tomato seed 'Go Fish'," Volker Trygstad says.
"We'll sit in my living room and say, 'Do you have any amana orange?' 'Do you have any Japanese Black Trifeles?' " Volker Trygstad says, referring to the pumpkin-orange beefsteak tomatoes and pear-shaped mahogany fruit with green striped shoulder. The Japanese Black Trifeles are Capistran's favorite.
The women first met at a gardening group in Ada and reconnected in 2009 when Volker Trygstad opened her Fargo greenhouse, It's About Thyme. Capistran taught her about heirloom tomatoes, and Volker Trygstad sold her friend's plants.
"We became better friends through tomatoes," Volker Trygstad says.
Capistran's willingness to teach is well known by her peers.
She's a natural teacher as well as an eager learner, says Linda Kingery, the executive director of the University of Minnesota's Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. Capistran recently joined the partnership's board.
"In her own community, people like Sheila, they make a lot happen. They introduce the right people together," Kingery says. "Their reach goes well beyond their own interest and expertise and their own hours in a day to help drive changes."
And coffee is always on at the farmhouse. Capistran has opened her home to farm tours and other groups and individuals who want to learn about tomatoes.
"I can't imagine not doing it. That's the joy of life—learn about each other, share with each other," she says.
In her living room, Capistran has a saying scribbled on paper. She says she raised her children based on the words.
"I'd rather say hello to a stranger than be afraid of them," she says. "I'd rather reach out to somebody than to fear them and avert my eyes."
Like the plants she raises, Capistran is resilient and faced her most difficult life experience yet when her daughter, Laurel Capistran Murphy, was killed in a car accident in 2006 at age 18. Laurel was attending the University of Minnesota, Crookston, and hoped to be a librarian, among other things.
"Everything I say, everything I do is because of her," Capistran says. She wears a pendant necklace with a small photo of Laurel in the center and talks openly about the devastation and inspiration she's faced since her daughter's death.
But, with the help of her sons, 24-year-old Hoang and 23-year-old Phuc, Capistran kept moving forward and honoring her daughter.
She adopted the Vietnamese brothers with her former spouse. "We had room in our hearts and our house, our big old farmhouse, for these kids," she says.
The 113-year-old house is filled with plants and old, vintage and repurposed items that give it a magical quality. It was built by homesteader William Wilkens in 1902 from a $622 "train kit" from Sears and Roebuck that consisted of pre-cut lumber.
The touches of whimsy continue outside, too, in Capistran's various gardens. Old quilts are draped over the chicken coop for color, and ornaments hang from trees. Flowers line the sidewalk, and every section of land has a little pizzaz.
"I see beauty in things other people call junk," Capistran says.
When she's not gardening or beautifying her home, Capistran creates art, helps with catering for events, breeds rat terrier dogs, grows flowers for weddings, volunteers with 4-H and the Lake Agassiz Regional Library and raises honey bees, among other things. She calls herself a recovering postal worker who now uses her time to "fit things in," like an online course through Harvard University and studies at the University of Minnesota so she could raise bees.
"It seemed if I walked into some place, they might offer me a job," Capistran says, laughing.
For now, she's concentrating on raising and selling her tomatoes until the ground freezes and then she'll dry, can and cook the leftovers. She might even make tomato wine.
"Whatever I approach, I look at it as a learning experience," Capistran says. "There's a lot of world within tomatoes yet to be found."