Fresh & Local
Tomatoes: The Official Start of Summer
Column #41, Published June 29th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

As Iíve said countless times, one of the big advantages of locally grown food is quality, and nothing makes my point as clearly as tomatoes. Nothing has the flavor of a fully vine-ripened heirloom variety tomato. But a fully vine-ripened heirloom variety tomato is extremely fragile and virtually impossible to ship over long distances. So there is no comparison: the best tomatoes you will ever eat will always be locally grown tomatoes.

The huge, far-away mega-farms that normally supply grocery stores grow varieties bred for their tough skins and disease resistance. Flavor is really not even a consideration. Those tomatoes are picked while they are still hard so that they can be shipped without damage. But they donít taste much like tomatoes.

So all winter and spring, we wait for summer and dream of all the dishes that can be made only with local heirloom tomatoes: tomato basil salad with mozzarella, light summer pasta sauce, tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, roasted tomatoes, bruschetta, salsa, corn and tomato pasta salad, stuffed tomatoes, bacon lettuce and tomato sandwiches, kabobs, tomato onion cucumber salad, and real cream of tomato soup Ė just to name a few that come immediately to my mind.

There is a saying in this area among tomato growers that if you have ripe tomatoes by the Fourth of July, then you have done a good job. I donít care what the calendar says. As far as Iím concerned, summer begins on the Fourth of July. Another week and summer will be here.

Tomatoes are labor-intensive to grow. We started in February growing hundreds of seedlings under fluorescent lights. As the plants got large enough, we moved them outside into cold frames. On April 20th, we planted the first 50 plants in the field.

There are two ways to grow tomatoes. One way is to let the plants grow on the ground. This saves a lot of up-front labor, but it makes picking and weeding much more difficult later on. It also increases the tomatoes lost to rotting, and makes the plants more susceptible to diseases.

The other way to grow tomatoes is to stake them to keep them off the ground. This makes picking and weeding much easier, reduces the losses from rotting and diseases, but make no mistake about it: staking over 400 tomato plants is two months of real work.

Rather than stake each individual plant, we pound a stake between every third plant, and then run twine between the stakes. Sisal baling twine works well for this, and we use a lot of it. Pounding the stakes in is hard work, but it only needs to be done one time. The twining needs to be done all season as the plants grow, but it gets easier as the plants get taller.

There is no sense to go to all this work and then lose the crop to drought in July. So there needs to be an irrigation system. We have a drip system using an emitter every two feet at each plant. And we have been using the irrigation this week.

Local growers already have months and months of work invested, and we have yet to sell a single tomato. But half a dozen of our tomatoes turned fully ripe this week. Finally, summer is here.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at