Virginia’s tomato traditions are still growing strong

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By Claire Mills

If summer had an official vegetable, it would have to be the plump, juicy tomato. Fresh from the field, the very aroma of a tomato triggers thoughts of sunny days and summer meals. 

Fortunately for hungry tomato lovers, fresh-market tomatoes are a multi-million dollar business in Virginia. During the 2015 growing season, Virginia farmers harvested 2,200 acres of fresh-market tomatoes last year, generated more than $34 million in cash receipts.  

A large presence on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

America's largest field tomato growers, Lipman Family Farms, has farms in Virginia, Florida, South Carolina and California. The company grows tomatoes on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where the majority of the state’s tomato crop originates. The most recent Census of Agriculture found 893 acres of tomatoes were grown in Northampton County and 573 acres in Accomack County.

“The Eastern Shore is a very important part of our summertime tomato production. We have 1,200 acres of tomatoes planted on the Eastern Shore,” said Gerry O’Dell, chief farming officer for Lipman Family Farms. “In the 1960s, we started our operation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but gradually migrated to Virginia. Virginia was a better location for growing tomatoes.” 

Lipman’s Eastern Shore location provides mature greens and vine-ripes from July through September. Harvesting fresh-market tomatoes is labor intensive and requires multiple pickings by hand.  

Northampton County Farm Bureau President Steve Sturgis said plastic mulch production, where vegetable crops grow through holes in plastic sheeting, increases tomato yields. The plastic suppresses weeds and helps growers manage insects and conserve water.       

“We can grow so many tomatoes per acre on the Eastern Shore because we use plastic mulch production in combination with drip irrigation. This precise application gives plants the water and nutrients they need,” Sturgis said.  

However, there’s more to a good location than productive growing conditions. 

“One of the good things about the Eastern Shore is the easy access to large population centers on the East Coast. We can get to large urban markets without having to (ship tomatoes) too far,” O’Dell explained. 

“Lipman’s ships 1,600 boxes to wholesalers in refrigerated trucks. That is the standard amount for each truck.” Wholesalers sell the tomatoes to grocery stores and restaurants all over the U.S.

A long history on the Northern Neck

Like their Eastern Shore counterparts, tomato growers on the Northern Neck are advantageously located near large population centers.

“We sell our tomatoes on our roadside stand and other farmer’s markets on the Northern Neck, but we also ship them to farmer’s markets and restaurants in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC,” said Dana Garner Boyle who along with her husband, Bernard, operates Garner’s Produce in Westmoreland County. 

With more than 100 acres planted in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and soybeans, Garner’s devotes seven acres to production of heirloom, cherry, low-acid yellow and Roma tomatoes. 

“We start our plants from seed in the greenhouse and transplant the first ones to the field in March. Usually by the middle of June, we begin picking early varieties like Early Girl and Red Deuce when they are ripe,” Boyle said. “We plant six different times until the Fourth of July. The sixth planting will ripen in the high tunnel, where they are planted right in the ground.”

Using the unheated greenhouse-like structure, she explained, “allows us to harvest until frost.”

Boyle, who is president of Westmorland County Farm Bureau, attributes the quality of Northern Neck tomatoes to the region’s sandy, well-drained soil and its location where the land warms up early and provides a good growing season.

When Boyle’s great-grandfather farmed in the early 1920s, the tomato business on the Northern Neck was already thriving. It was the heyday of the steamboat on the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, and by the early 20th century nearly every significant Northern Neck wharf had a tomato cannery nearby. Steamboats would carry canned and fresh tomatoes to market in Baltimore.

At one time there were nearly 40 tomato canneries on the Northern Neck, according to an exhibit on farming at the Morattico Waterfront Museum. Morattico in Lancaster County was bustling stop No. 15 on the steamboat line. Large tomato fields surrounded the village when the cannery was in operation. 

Even though the steamboats are now gone, tomato production on the Northern Neck is still going strong. More than 100 acres of tomatoes were harvested in Westmorland County according to the latest statistics in 2012. 

A celebrated crop in Hanover County

Hanover County is home to celebrated tomato crops and a tomato festival that draws more than 30,000 people each July.

 “I know of 30 producers in Hanover that grow tomatoes commercially, and I often learn of new producers,” said Laura Maxey-Nay, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in the county. Though she has seen the number of larger producers decrease in recent years, she has seen the number of small producers increase.

Maxey-Nay said Hanover tomato producers sell to grocery chains and wholesalers and at farmers’ markets and farm stands. “Hanover has been blessed with good soil for growing tomatoes, but in my opinion it is the resilient, passionate, hardworking Hanover tomato farmer that makes a true Hanover Tomato,” she said.

As the countdown begins for this summer’s fresh-market tomatoes, farmers are busy transplanting and staking row after row of plants. And even growers anticipate indulging in the fruits of their labor. 

“I look forward to going to the Eastern Shore every summer and eating our Vintage Ripe tomatoes,” O’Dell said. “They are the perfect side for steamed crabs.” 

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