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PRICELESS HEIRLOOMS | Life, love and tomatoes in Mechanicsville

PRICELESS HEIRLOOMS | Life, love and tomatoes in Mechanicsville

It was the first week of August and the manic growing season had already taken its toll on David Hunsaker’s farm in Hanover County, a region heralded as the Napa Valley of tomatoes.

Trellises were starting to collapse from the tonnage of fruit they’d borne that season. Wooden stakes were splintering. Weeds were overtaking wilted vines. Tomato plants were diseased and dying. In a matter of weeks, they’d all be gone.

Those same plants began their lives back in February as seedlings, incubated during infancy in the second-floor piano room of Hunsaker’s home, just yards away from the farm. Once the ground had thawed, they went out into the world, quickly maturing into productive adults. Then, in a brief but triumphant blaze of glory, the plants bore fruit, as much as they could sustain before sickness and old age set in.

The growing season lasts but five months, from ground to grave, a brief, fragile existence that reminds Hunsaker of his own mortality. “You run through the whole cycle of life,” he says. “From the joy of youth and birth to death and destruction.”

Hunsaker, 67, owns Village Garden, a small suburban farm that supplies heirloom tomatoes to more than 20 Richmond restaurants, including James Beard Foundation Award nominees Brenner Pass and The Roosevelt. His tomatoes have been featured at the iconic Inn at Little Washington and he has even started co-hosting a series of high-end, tomato-based dinners across the state.

If that was the only line in his biography, he would be interesting enough. But Hunsaker has led a richer existence than most. Before becoming a master tomato farmer, he’d been a martial arts instructor, healthcare executive, and once held public office as a deputy court clerk. He’s also an ardent globetrotter, father of three, and self-trained magician.

“My plan is to try to do and appreciate and enjoy as much of life as I can,” he says. “It’s like these plants. I’m going to get old and diseased and blow off in a puff of wind. So, I may as well try to make it as delicious and interesting and fun and substantive as I can.”


Hunsaker was raised in the small Appalachian town of Coeburn, down in the southwestern toe of Virginia. He was one of five children born to a poor coal mining family. Planting and harvesting tomatoes and produce was a way of life.

Even as a child, Hunsaker hungered for new ideas and experiences. He read a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica by the age of 6 and the complete works of Emerson and Thoreau as a teenager.

As a student at Old Dominion University in the mid-70s, he found a lifelong passion for martial arts. “I ate, slept, and breathed martial arts,” Hunsaker says. He trained six hours a day, six days a week – between classes and graveyard shifts at a local psych hospital – and toured Japan with his teammates, competing in dojos across the country.

Training was intense. His sensei, an internationally-recognized martial arts master from Japan and 24th-generation descendant of a samurai family, subjected his pupils to an extreme physical regimen. Taking sledgehammers and smashing concrete blocks over them as they lay on beds of nails, striking them with bamboo rods, and forcing them to endure freezing-cold seawater in the depths of winter.

After earning his black belt in just a year and a half, Hunsaker trained others and continued as a martial arts instructor even after college. He ran his own dojo in Mechanicsville from 1993 to 2011, all while working full-time as a corporate executive and private consultant in the healthcare field.

Martial arts appealed to him, he says, because it offered a glimpse into another culture, something that always fascinated him. He’s been to more than 75 countries and visited every continent. And his travels have cultivated within him a deep appreciation of Buddhism and other world religions.

The man is not one for conventional itineraries either. On a nearly three-month long trip to Africa, he dove off of waterfalls, free-climbed cliffs in his suit jacket, embarked on multi-day mountain treks to glimpse gorillas in the mist, and paddled dugout canoes during harrowing lightning storms.

Still, Hunsaker found himself longing for a partner to share his adventures with. He had spent almost two decades, after getting divorced twice, wandering through life as a solo traveler. Then, in 2011, he met Barbara Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth, a native of Chesterfield County, was a single divorcée with a young daughter when the two first met. Hollingsworth had found herself in a rut. It was Hunsaker who helped her climb out of it. “After I divorced, I just stayed at home,” Hollingsworth says. “I was just bored. And when I met David, I realized that’s what it was.”

The couple’s first date was at Can Can Brasserie in Richmond’s Carytown district. Within two months of that, Hunsaker had already convinced Hollingsworth, who’d never been out of the country before, to take a trip with him to Istanbul and Greece and inspired her to leave her job for something she found more fulfilling. A couple months later, they hatched the idea for Village Garden, even though neither had ever worked in agriculture.

Farming wasn’t at all on Hunsaker’s mind when he bought the 10-acre property in Mechanicsville in 2004. At the time, he was still in healthcare. The house he built on the land was modeled on the structure of a carbon atom – the basic building block of life. He also erected a greenhouse out back, thinking he’d do a bit of recreational gardening at some point.

It wasn’t until launching Village Garden with Hollingsworth in January 2012 that he uncovered how special the area truly was. Perched above an old creek bed, a mix of sand and clay and forest growth, the farm has the perfect elevation and soil for heirloom fruits, especially tomatoes and chile peppers, another relative of the nightshade family grown there.

Hunsaker and Hollingsworth started with only 50 or so varietals of tomatoes their first year. These days the couple is up to 300, from catfaced beauties to peach-fuzzed cuties, heart-shaped stripers to meaty slicers, all densely packed into this modest plot of just a single acre.

What the Village Garden grows aren’t your usual softball-sized hybrids engineered in labs to make them easier to replicate. They’re precious heirloom specimens, with odd names like “Banana Legs” or “Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter,” that have only survived thanks to their natural promiscuity and the generations of enterprising seed savers who’ve preserved them for posterity.

They’re more of a challenge to cultivate. They’re unpredictable, free-wheeling, and highly susceptible to wilts, blights, and frosts. And they vary wildly in shape and color and size. But that’s why the couple has chosen to grow them.

“Because they’re hard,” says Hunsaker. “Because there’s nothing in the whole plant kingdom that I’ve observed” with as much diversity as heirloom tomatoes.

A far cry from Hunsaker’s career in healthcare, where he managed hundreds of employees, these days it’s just Hollingsworth and him working in a field until dusk, eight hours a day, often in 95-degree heat, their arms coated in sticky, coal-black tomato tar. Twice a week, they’ll personally deliver giant crates of tomatoes to local restaurants. And as if that weren’t enough, this year, the couple hosted 20 tomato-themed wine dinners around town, as part of their “Summer Supper Somm” series.

“This is obviously a love affair for us,” says Hunsaker. “Between each other and this farm.”

This past tomato season took a tremendous toll on the Hunsakers. Coupled with the demands of the farm, the couple lost their 13-year-old dog, Shanti, in March. Several months later Hunsaker lost his mother, Genevieve Kelly, at the age of 97. The very next month, they were involved in a terrifying car crash with a speeding freight train.

But in life, as it is with tomatoes, one season ends and another begins.

“At the end of the season, we’re bum tired,” says Hunsaker. But come the following February, when the seeding process begins again, “you’ve been reborn,” blessed with another opportunity “to see new things and new growth patterns.”

In fact, signs of renewal in Hunsaker’s life have already emerged. Two hyperactive Portuguese water dog puppies, both related to Shanti, now freely roam the farm. A new varietal of tomato – bred by crossing a tacky-skinned Peach Blow Sutton and an oblate Brandywine – has earned the name “Genevieve” in honor of his mother, and in August, Hunsaker’s first grandson came into the world.

This is the way of things – and Hunsaker is at peace with it. “I’m gonna die,” he says, without a trace of sadness in his voice. And when the time comes, he adds smiling, “I hope it’s out here in a tomato field.”

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