Lessons in sustainability: the remarkable philosophy of Thomas Tomas
This is the time of year when rural Nebraska shines. Harvest has officially begun and farmers are busy in their fields reaping what they have sowed. Pivots sit eerily dormant and the hum of crop dusters has been silenced for the season. The once sea of earthly green has quickly turned into autumnal shades of raw umber, ochre and sienna. There is crispness in the prairie air and the faint scent of dried corn husks blows in with wild winds.
The change of seasons was evident as we drove into Orleans, a village in the Republican River Valley that greets you with a steeple and stillness. Orleans sits upon a vista that overlooks a stretch of land known for its canyons and cornfields. The village itself is charming and boasts all the markings of a thriving community; a stately library, a city park, a busy post office and a downtown that offers enough amenities to shop locally.
It wasn’t far from this town square that we came upon the residence of Thomas Tomas, a brilliant man that is as modest as his sun weathered home and old Chevy pick-up truck. His property sits on an unassuming corner lot and upon passing looks like nothing more than the home of a passionate gardener that wins blue ribbons at the county fair. It’s not until you approach his front door that you realize there is something wildly different about this plot of land.
We meet the master
Through an ancient screen door we are greeted by Mrs. Tomas, a practical woman who quickly shuffles off to locate her husband. While we waited under the shade of grape vines, we took notice of the meticulous garden, which is methodical in its sectioning and placement. The Tomas’ emerged from the house and they seem to be the embodiment of “American Gothic”; sturdy Midwesterners with tough hands and sensible thoughts. We had called ahead to schedule a tour and Mr. Tomas was eager to share his story.
Tom is a lanky man with deep set eyes and a snow white Hemingway beard. His furrowed brow is full of deep thoughts and his hands tell a far better story than I ever could. He has a soft voice and a deep laugh that is reserved for rare occasions. He describes himself as a “former farmer with extensive training and experience in horticulture and organic agriculture.” He took a job in the janitorial department of the University of Nebraska School of Technical Agriculture with intentions of attending college classes at night. He earned a degree in Horticulture and taught at the school for six years. He went on to get his PhD. at Cornell and worked for the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.
A garden tour
The tour began with his front yard which was flourishing with all sorts of leafy greens. Tom explained that one section was planted with sweet potatoes while the other was a peanut crop.
“Sweet potatoes and peanuts make good neighbors,” he stated firmly.
He believes in succession planting and crop rotation in order to increase production and to avoid problems with disease. While he quoted George Washington Carver, Tom kneeled down and grabbed a handful of his rich Nebraska soil. It was this great educator and botanist that inspired Tom to become a horticulturist and taught him how to feed a family on a small parcel of land. Through Carver’s research and teachings, Tom learned about sustainable farming and the importance of utilizing alternative crops in conjunction with cash crops. He spoke about the balance of nature and the responsibility we have as humans to maintain that.
As we proceeded to his backyard, he pointed out the hairy vetch that was flourishing among his crops. He noted that this legume was beneficial because it provides nitrogen to the soil and acts as mulch that preserves moisture and prevents weeds from growing.
Feed the soil, not the plant
His garden was absolutely meticulous. As we followed Tom along a dirt path, he pointed out what was growing where and which crop had been planted in its place before. We passed rows of corn and beets, and carrots so ripe they were jutting out of the soil. Occasionally, Tom would interject a catchy phrase from the old Farmer’s Almanac when we inquired about certain produce. While pointing out a bed of turnips, Tom told us with a grin, “You plant turnips the 25th of July; wet or dry…You harvest them in October; drunk or sober.”
We walked past rows of fava beans and lettuces, and horseradish with leaves so big they could have served as an umbrella. Tom would stop us and point out the soil more than the crops that were growing within it. He was proud of his compost and reminded us that, “If it came from the soil, it should be returned to the soil.”
“Feed the soil rather than the plant,” Tom said as he scooped a handful of compost from under a layer of grass clippings. He inhaled its scent and asked us to do the same. It was sweet and mineral and black as night.
On the way over to his tomato garden he plucked two white peaches from a tree on his property line. He gave one to each of us and said he planted the tree close to his neighbor’s lot so they could share in the bounty. Tom’s thoughtfulness reaches far beyond his compassion for the land. It was the best peach I have ever had.
Everything in harmony
In the heart of Tom’s garden is a chicken coop which had been responsible for the soundtrack of our visit. Beautiful Orpingtons strutted around their enclosure and made an effort to command our attention. An old cat was lying on the rooftop of the coop, proving that these animals, much like the crops themselves, live in perfect harmony here in Tom’s garden.
Under a canopy of bright green gourds, Tom explained the process of how he turns them into birdhouses. It was clear that everything in Tom’s world had a purpose. He then pointed to a fruit tree that had quince dangling from sturdy branches. He gently rubbed the skin of a quince and said his mother would often recite “The Owl and the Pussycat,” a nursery rhyme that spoke of this ancient pome fruit. Without missing a beat, he rattled off a verse from his youth: “They dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.” He smiled and his eyes lit up. You could tell he was thinking of his mother.
The garden tour was nearing its end as we entered the north facing side of Tom’s operation. This is where raspberries and huckleberries thrive and mushrooms grow from the graves of old tree roots. He allowed us to pick a berry from the vine and it tasted as amazing as it looked. It is here that Tom also grows milkweed because he knows of its importance to bees and monarch butterflies. He motioned for us to come closer to a particular milkweed plant and showed us a young larvae that had taken up residence on a tender leaf. Tom knew right where it was as if they had a standing date every day at that time. He explained that he will soon move this larvae to a plant that is larger with more leaves. Lucky larvae.
What it’s all for
As Tom escorted us to the edge of his property we asked him one last question: “Why do you do all of this work? What is it all for?” He leaned over the bed of his old Chevy pick-up and furrowed his brow. He stood quietly with his thoughts for a few moments and then he turned to us and explained his passion in life.
Tom said that what motivates him is creating a meaningful quality of life. Money does not dictate his work or lifestyle. He acknowledges that we live in an industrial age and even though we are immersed in technology, he doesn’t allow cell phones in his garden. There is not a computer in his home because he finds his ideas and words flow more freely on paper. He compared Americans to the French and wondered why they work to live and we live to work. He seemed disheartened by our priorities as a society.
That being said, Tom believes that everything has its place in this world. Whether it’s a butterfly or a belief, he makes it clear that it’s not his intention to question that. He simply finds the things that he feels in his heart to be true and nurtures them so they will grow.