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W.Va. festival is all about tasting the tomatoes

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By MARY WADE BURNSIDE

The Exponent Telegram

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The numeral in the name of the West Virginia 63 tomato refers to the year of the Mountain State’s centennial, not to the number of varieties of the red fruit that most use as a vegetable.

Actually, about 7,500 tomato varieties exist, but the 30 to 50 types that will be sampled at the sixth annual Tomato Tasting Festival is still a respectable showing of the product, which might not come in the colors of the rainbow, but still can be found in hues of red, green, yellow and pink to a purplish-black.

And growers harvest tomatoes from early August to late September, said Jean Dawson, which makes the Tomato Tasting Festival, presented from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at High Gate Carriage House in Fairmont by the Marion County Master Gardeners, a well-timed event.

As for varieties, in addition to the West Virginia 63, Dawson also grows two heirloom types, the Abe Lincoln and another one that she calls “Hazel Hub,” after a friend of hers who gave her the tomato plant that she cultivates.

“The Abe Lincoln is a great big pink tomato with very few seeds in it, and the other one is a great big yellow and red tomato that grows big,” she said.

Attendees of the Tomato Tasting Festival will be able to taste several different varieties during the event, said organizer and Marion County Master Gardener member Christa Blais, as well as buy a lunch of pasta and tomatoes for $6 and have the opportunity to hear music and visit a farmer’s market and an artisan market.

“What happens is that people bring in and enter tomatoes, and we cut them up so people get to sample them,” Blais said.

People who want to enter tomatoes can bring them between 8 and 10 a.m. Sunday, she added. They will be judged on biggest, best tasting and People’s Choice in categories of small, medium and large, and there is no entry fee, according to information provided by Blais.

In addition to the West Virginia 63, a hybrid that was engineered for the state’s climate, common varieties include several different types of beefsteaks, as well as heirlooms such as Mr. Stripey and the Sweet Pea Currant.

“Last year, that one won the People’s Choice Award,” Blais said of the latter variety. “It tasted like wine. It was very delicious.”

Tomatoes also come in different sizes, as small as grapes and cherries, which lend their names to those types, and Dawson has grown one that weighed 3 1/2 pounds, she said.

Homegrown tomatoes taste different than their supermarket counterparts, Blais said, because the latter are engineered for longevity, transportation and shelf life, not flavor.

“It’s to keep them red and keep them red long,” Blais said. “By doing that, they’ve sacrificed flavor and variety off the bat. With growing them yourself, you can have a huge array of heirlooms and varieties that are designed for taste instead.”

The Tomato Tasting Festival was started by Dawson and two other growers in 2008. One was not held in 2012, Blais said, making this year’s event the sixth one.

When the festival returned last year, the number of varieties offered was smaller than in the past because of a problem with blight, Blais said.

John Murray, an agent with the West Virginia University Extension Agency, which helps coordinate the Tomato Tasting Festival, said some growers are still having trouble with blight, as well as Septoria Leaf Spot, both conditions caused by fungus, he said. The wetter-than-usual weather has allowed fungus to grow, he added.

“There are preventative fungicides that can be utilized and also some cultural practices that can help to control it,” Murray said. “But it doesn’t prevent it. It keeps it from being as bad, but there still will be issues.”

Other activities at the Tomato Tasting Festival include workshops on beekeeping, butterfly gardening and fresh food preservation, Blais said.

A transplant to the area from Daytona Beach, Florida, Blais became interested in growing vegetables and herbs after she began to hear concerns about food safety and E. coli, she said.

“I’ve always been interested in urban agriculture and agriculture in general,” she added. We moved from Daytona Beach to live off the grid and the land, and we ended up buying a house in the city. So I’m an urban gardener. I love it here.”

She also has helped the Marion County Master Gardeners with three community gardens, one behind Foxfire Restaurant at Heston Farm, one at Oliver Avenue Park and another one at 612 Mac, a community center.

“We have tomatoes and squash and corn and all kinds of stuff growing,” she said. “We do have herbs as well, and we’re going to do more flowers this year to help attract beneficial bugs.”

As for Dawson, now that her children have grown and left home, she limits her tomato growing to “about three dozen plants,” which still yields enough produce to make spaghetti sauce, give some away, can others and of course, eat them fresh.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Just take the core out and slice them and put a little bit of salt and pepper on them. If you’re lucky enough to have a loaf of homemade bread, they make might good sandwiches.”


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