Tomatoes hailed at Virginia festivals

AFP Correspondent

(Aug. 23, 2016) Tomatoes and their fans roll across Virginia in the summer months with several celebrations of the garden staple. In Bristol, Va., where State Street divides Virginia and Tennessee, the annual Tomato Fest was held Aug. 13 to celebrate a crop that is both commercial and cultural, depending upon the growers and markets.
Farmers markets and retail outlets are not the only markets for Virginia tomatoes.
According to state statistics, Virginia farmers plant about 2,200 acres of tomatoes were worth $34.1 million in cash receipts last year.
Tomatoes are an enormous part of the heritage and economy in the two counties on the state’s Eastern Shore. And in recent years, Red Sun’s 48-acre complex of hydroponically-grown greenhouse tomatoes are adding to the economy in Southwest Virginia.
Mike Musick, director of the Bristol Farmers Market and recreation department superintendent in Bristol, Tenn., said the tomato fest was one way the market observed National Farmers Market Week. During the event, he handed out tomato biscuits to distribute to folks visiting the market on a hot summer morning.
Tomato growers from both Virginia and Tennessee were among nearly 30 vendors doing business at the popular downtown location. For many of the vendors, heritage tomatoes make up the largest part of their tomato crops.
“I don’t grow anything but heritage tomatoes,” Robb Cross, owner of Rob Cross Farm in Hensville, Va. said. “Because that’s what people buy.”
Nancy Stumpo an employee for Glen Mary Garden in Bristol, Va. Said the farm plants from 1,500 to 3,000 annually of each of the varieties of heritage tomatoes that they grow.
Sitting on the tailgate of a truck eating his lunch, Jackie Thomas of Meadow View, Va. said he plants 21 different varieties of the heritage tomatoes. He sells them on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Bristol market and on Thursday at the Chilhowie, Va. market.
Virginia’s Hanover County Tomato Festival claims the title of biggest tomato festival in the state, according to Tom Harris, public information officer for the county.  He said the festival which began for the county’s rural Black Creek Volunteer Fire Department and drew 5,200 visitors in 1975 has grown.
He reported 40,000 attended this year’s festival.  It has gotten so big it has been moved to the Pole Creek Park in Mechanicsville and usually attracts over 200 vendors.
Many in Hanover maintain the Hanover tomato tastes better than other tomatoes, he said, noting a lot of tomatoes are grown in the county and sold at farmers markets in Hanover and the Richmond metro area. 
He said sales of tomatoes at the festival were good too. He pointed out that other tomato products are sold as well and that numerous entertainment and children’s events were held.
Last week marked the ninth year for the EastMont Tomato Festival in Shawsville, Va. The event has grown to include “Mater Madness,” a boot camp-style morning workout, the Mater Miler run/walk, TomatOlympics and contests for growing, cooking and eating tomatoes.
The Independence Farmers Market in Grayson County on the Virginia-North Carolina border held its Tomato Festival on Friday, Aug. 5. It featured a People’s Choice Tomato Salsa Tasting Festival and a Monster Tomato Weighing.
“Rick and Jen Cavey won the Monster Tomato weigh in for the second year in a row,” said Michelle Pridgen, market director. “Tomatoes were smaller this year due to the strange weather. Last year’s winner was ‘Pineapple’ at 2.98 pounds. This year’s winner was a locally-saved Oxheart type at 2.2 pounds.” 
Pridgen added she came in second with a 2.02 pound tomato named “Alice.”
“The seed had been saved by a friends’ family for many years and the lady doing the seed saving in the Boone area was named Alice,” she said. “When I got the seed that was the name I was given.”
Pridgen said the entries in both the heaviest tomato and salsl contests were down this year and blamed it on the very hot summer.
“I feel the highlight of the day is the free tomato tasting,” she said. “We (the vendors) all donate tomatoes to the table and label and slice them so folks can try them side by side. We had about 15 varieties. Six vendors sell tomatoes at our Market. We usually average 200 customers and we average 25 vendors.”