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Guilford’s Great Tomato Festival offers 33 varieties for tasting

This summer’s tomato season got off to a slow start, with cooler spring temperatures and heavier-than-normal rainfall. But that didn’t stop tomato lovers from turning out for the fourth annual Great Tomato Festival in Greensboro, organized by N.C. Cooperative Extension in Guilford County and N.C. A&T State University.

The Saturday event, held in July at the N.C. A&T University Farm, draws 250-300 people to taste tomatoes, learn to grow tomatoes, cook tomatoes, buy tomato plants and more. As visitors taste the tomatoes prepared for the event – 33 varieties this year – they rate the varieties and choose their favorites.

Two days before the event, Guilford‘s Extension Master Gardeners were hard at work, first picking tomatoes raised on the farm for the occasion and then washing and cutting them for the festival. This year, the MGs and A&T farm staff planted 56 tomato varieties. Before the festival about 40 were ripe enough to eat, but only 33 varieties were offered based on the quantity of ripe tomatoes available.

Agricultural Agent Karen Neill said her goal for the tomato festival is to encourage home gardeners to expand their choices of tomato varieties they grow. “It gives home gardeners a chance to taste and think of the varieties they would like to grow for next year.” And over the winter, they can order their heirloom tomato seeds and start their plants indoors, she said.

County Extension Director Wick Wickliffe hopes that data gathered at the festival will help the farmers he works with consider new tomato varieties to sell at market. The data gathered has encouraged Guilford farmers to grow and sell a mix of both large slicing tomatoes and smaller grape or cherry tomatoes used in salads.

tomatoes on a table
At the festival, 33 varieties of tomatoes were available for tasting.

Visitors walked by the tasting table, sticking tomato samples with toothpicks and marking their favorites on tasting sheets. Sungold tomatoes have been very popular at the festival each year, and they are the favorite of 4-H Agent Peggie Lewis Joyce. Wickliffe says the variety super sweet, another small tomato, is his favorite.

This summer, Dr. Sanjun Gu of N.C. A&T State University has been involved with the tomato project, collecting data on cultivation practices, disease, soil and more. But this season’s heavy rain has increased incidents of plant disease and delayed fruit ripening as well. Neill hopes the research can be repeated to provide information on a more normal growing season. During the festival, Gu presented a session on growing tomatoes

Dr. Carinthia Cherry of A&T and Geissler Baker of Extension in Guilford County offered a workshop on the nutrition of tomatoes and cooking with fresh tomatoes. The two prepared a salsa, fresh tomato soup that everyone loved and Fusion Tomato Soup Cookies, a vintage recipe published in the New Yorker in 1926. The cookies, which resembled an oatmeal cookie in flavor, were a hit too. “They wouldn’t have guessed that the cookies contained tomato if I’d kept it my secret,” Baker said.

Activities for youth included preparing tomato sandwiches and reading stories about tomatoes and gardening. Visitors also had an opportunity to buy tomato plants to plant now for harvest in fall.

After cutting samples of the tasting tomatoes, Master Gardeners, farm and Extension staff celebrated with an old fashioned ‘mater sandwich, on white bread with mayonnaise. The experience left everyone to speculate on which of the sliced varieties made the best sandwich!

-N. Hampton

two people washing tomatoes
Tomatoes are handwashed and dried before being sliced.
woman puts tomato on bread
After the tomatoes are prepared, volunteers enjoy an old-fashioned tomato sandwich.