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Jerry and Susan grow organic tomatoes for farmers markets

They attract customers at the Kootenai County Farmers Market, grace tables at the Davenport Hotel, and are in demand by produce managers at groceries across North Idaho and eastern Washington. Some of the area’s tastiest, most colorful organic tomatoes are made right here at Deerfield Farms.

After moving up the ranks to become head of facilities at a then-prospering Coldwater Creek in Sandpoint, Jerry Petrina was like the proverbial dog who had chased down the car and caught it. He said his job was interesting and rewarding, but it kept him away from his young family. He worked 60 hours a week and was always on call. His wife, Susan, and their home-schooled children missed having him around. After nine years at the company, Jerry and Susan realized it was time for a change.

As a child, Susan loved gardening with her grandfather and had always been one to pour her love on little growing things. When the family decided to make the career switch, going into organic farming seemed the natural thing to do. It was a family-centric way of life, she explained.

Why grow organic? As a parent, Susan said she wanted to grow food that would be the healthiest possible for her kids and for their customers. Organic produce comes from non-genetically modified seeds and is grown without artificial fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, Susan said. Deerfield Farms tomatoes are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Eleven years ago, the Petrinas grew their first crop of beefsteak tomatoes — the red kind you usually identify as tomatoes at the grocery store. They had a good crop, but learned that heirloom tomatoes were the way to go.

They’ve gradually expanded to around 30 varieties of tomatoes since then. Three-quarters of them are heirloom varieties, which means that their seeds have been passed down for generations and have not been hybridized, Susan said. From the robust Mortgage Lifter to the long San Marzano, the Petrinas’ tomatoes come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and flavors.

“We’re constantly amazed at how often customers tell us it’s the best tomato they’ve ever had,” Jerry said.

“It’s a mystery” to the Petrinas, he said. Though they are innovators who have developed some closely held secrets, the Petrinas admit that they’re standing on the shoulders of the people who have come before them in the organic gardening world. From keeping bumblebees in the greenhouse to their methods of pruning and supporting their vines, they just keep working hard and keep learning.

Ultimately, they attribute their successful produce to God. The Christian family worships at Cedar Hills Church in Sandpoint. Their faith has strengthened them through the bumpy transition to entrepreneurship, through paying off debts, and through the loss of two of their children.

Organic produce is in high demand in the area, and the Petrinas say they’re grateful to have found their niche. Local farmers markets, grocers, and restaurants buy them out of all their supply, Jerry said.

“It’s very meaningful to customers to meet the people growing their food,” Susan said.

They are blessed to have loyal customers who come back to buy their tomatoes year after year, they said. Susan choked up recalling a customer whose sister had experienced a loss in the family. The sister loved the Petrinas’ delicious tomatoes, and bringing her a basket full was one way the customer wanted to cheer up her sister, Susan said.

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