Mia Brown hasn't always had a love affair with tomatoes.
Until five years ago, she hated the texture and taste of those mass-produced and packed tomatoes she found in the store. But it was all she knew — until she took a bite of her first heirloom tomato at a Sacramento restaurant.
"I changed my mind and became a total zealot," said Brown, 36, a Lodi native.
Not long after tempting her taste buds, she decided to grow her own. She started with 12 plants the first year, then 20 the second and 200 plants the fourth year. Now in her fifth year of growing tomatoes, she is getting ready to plant 300 seedlings in her own tomato field.
She's jumped into the heirloom business as full-fledged grower and owner of True Love Tomatoes in Lodi. Her "green doctor" variety won Best of Show at last year's tomato competition at Kendall Jackson Winery, earning her the honor two years in a row.
Brown is sharing her expertise — and 47 heirloom varieties — at her annual sale Saturday and Sunday. If she still has plants left, she'll also have a sale on May 1. She plans to sell about 600 potted heirloom tomato plants that people can take home and plant in their own gardens.
Celebrating her namesake, True Love Tomatoes, she planted the varieties from seeds on Valentine's Day, where they grew in her greenhouse until recently.
"They've been spending quality time outdoors," she said.
The plants, grown with certified organic products, come in 4-inch pots and are between four and 10 inches high. They are ready to plant, but should be OK in the pots for a couple of weeks with proper care.
The sale is at Brown's tomato farm at 14281 N. Vintage Road in Lodi. The plants are $3 each.
Browns' tomatoes keep her busy — especially in the early stages when she was feeding 1,500 sprouting seedlings organic fish emulsion with an eyedropper. On the business' Facebook page she jokes, "When I say they're 'raised by hand,' I mean it."
When tomatoes are not demanding her attention, she works as a water and agriculture attorney with Neumiller & Beardslee and teaches water law at Humphreys College. She also has a horse and two rescued pit bulls, Zoey and Buddy, who offer a good dose of entertainment. Brown has a lot of local pride, and was named 1998 Miss Rodeo California.
Tomatoes will keep Brown in the field and kitchen until late September. She loves all of the varieties, but she says asking her to choose a favorite is like asking a mom which of her children is her favorite.
"I do really like the black variety of tomato. They're really intensely flavored; they're just awesome," she said.
Of course, her award-winning green doctor with its olive green skin and fruity, sweet flavor is another top choice.
As she cooks and prepares summertime dishes with the tomatoes, she'll use every variety, from Green Sausage and Cherokee Purple to Pink Ping Pong and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye. She makes a lot of gazpacho, bread salad and Caprese-type salads with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil. Throughout the season, she'll post recipes on True Love Tomato's Facebook page.
Though she finds herself tired of tomatoes by the end of the year, she's always ready for more come Valentine's Day. For Brown and the shiny, spotted and sometimes disfigured heirlooms, it really is true love.
"They are weird and different," she said. "Some of them are fussy, but I think they're far more interesting."