Event has grown into more than just tomatoes

AFP Correspondent

PITTSTOWN, Hunterdon County (Oct. 1, 2016) — A record-setting crowd showed up on a hot afternoon on Aug. 30, at Rutgers’ Snyder Research and Extension Farm for the annual Great Tomato Tasting.
Attendees included foodies, backyard gardeners and a few organic and conventional farmers.
“We try and pre-register people to get a handle on how many will attend our event,” said Dr. John Grande, director of the research farm, “and this year we had about 1,100 pre-registered. I think our attendance is up to about 1,400 or 1,500 this year.”
In more than 15 years, the annual Great Tomato Tasting and Open House has evolved into a much more substantial event than just tomatoes.
Patrons who paid a cover charge to support research efforts at the farm, were treated to everything from apples and peaches, various types of cantaloupe and watermelons, hazelnuts, basil, cooking demonstrations and more than 100 varieties of cherry, grape, plum and larger heirloom tomatoes.
Grande credited farm manager Ed Dager and hundreds of Master Gardener volunteers for making the event work every year, usually the last Wednesday in August.
“We have just about 100 varieties of tomatoes for people to sample here,” Grande said standing near a plot of test basil, “and I noticed it wasn’t until after people got their fill of tomatoes that they came over to learn about the Zika virus. I thought people would run right over to the Zika tent to learn about it,” he said.
The dozens of volunteers slicing and serving tomatoes kept the lines from being too long. There were long lines for hazel nuts, a program started by the late Dr. C. Reed Funk and continued by Dr. Tom Molnar, and patrons freely sampled Dr. Jim Simon’s various types of basil.
Simon was on site to talk about research efforts at Rutgers to develop more disease-resistant strains of basil.
“We have about 135 volunteers. They don’t just show up here and volunteer, they come here days in advance and everybody works together as smooth as silk, everybody has their assigned tasks,” Grande said. “If we tried to put on an event like this without all these volunteers, we’d never be able to do this,” Grande added.
“We also need to credit our farm manager Ed Dager, he’s this incredible solid quiet person in the background who produces all these tomatoes on a given day every year,” he said, noting “most farmers sell their tomatoes when they get ripe; by contrast, we tell Ed we need all our tomatoes ripe by Aug. 31, a very challenging thing to do.”