We Say Tomato

It’s our official state fruit for good reason: Tomatoes are fun to grow, contribute to our economy and foster community camaraderie.

Ohioans are passionate about tomatoes.

We plant way too many in our home gardens simply because we can’t resist trying just one more variety. We leave bags of surplus cherry tomatoes on our neighbors’ front porch, ring the doorbell and run, while they leave a basket of grape tomatoes at our back door.

We earn bragging rights for harvesting the first ripe tomato on the street and for growing the biggest. (Last year’s Ohio State Fair winner was a 2.7-pound monster grown by gardener Christopher Rinehart.)

“Some people’s image of gardening is actually the tomato,” says Matt Kleinhenz, Ohio State University vegetable crops specialist. “People call themselves gardeners, but they are really tomato gardeners because that’s mostly what they grow. But that’s fine, because they get the physical and emotional benefits from growing them as well as the health benefits from eating tomatoes.”

We slice tomatoes for sandwiches, pop the smallest varieties into salads and lunch boxes, dice others for salsa and cook them for pasta sauce. The tomato was named Ohio’s official state fruit in 2009. Tomato juice became the official state beverage in 1965.

The average American eats 90 pounds of fresh and processed tomatoes annually, according to J. Benton Jones, an applied plant physiologist with a special interest in tomatoes. Not bad for a plant that everyone calls a vegetable, but botanically is a fruit. 

“Because tomatoes are plentiful here, Ohioans don’t always appreciate them,” says Kleinhenz, telling the story of someone who once traded a pickup truck full of fresh Ohio tomatoes to a person in Oregon for a pickup load of salmon.

“The tomato also contributes to community camaraderie with its big role at farmers markets and festivals. And it is also one way we mark time in Ohio: We say, ‘It’s tomato season.’ ”

And that season is highlighted by the 49th annual Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, August 16–17 in central Ohio. Check out tomato ice cream, fried green tomatoes, contests for the Tallest Tomato Vine, Most Oddly Formed Tomato and more. According to festival organizers, Reynoldsburg is the birthplace of the commercial tomato. In the 19th century, local resident Alexander W. Livingston developed the Paragon tomato, better suited for that purpose.

Some backyard gardeners move beyond their residences and add nearby plots to grow additional plants. Barb Breedon Van Blarcum and her husband, Curt Van Blarcum, of Hudson, have grown tomatoes since they married 25 years ago. They grow mostly plum tomatoes “because they are best for cooking.” But the couple also loves “the little ones you pick right off the vine and pop into your mouth.”

The Van Blarcums have grown as many as 1,000 garlic plants and harvest tomatoes because “what goes better with garlic than tomatoes?”

Selling the Sauce
The importance of tomatoes extends well beyond the potted plant on the deck or balcony or those grown in home plots. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio ranked third in processed tomato production (paste, juice, sauce, etc.) and sixth among states for fresh tomato production in 2012.

Hirzel Canning Company and Farms in Toledo (deifratelli.com) contributes a huge beefsteak-tomato-sized share to Ohio’s processed tomato industry. The 90-year-old family business is best known for its Dei Fratelli label. The family heritage is Swiss, but “no one was looking for Swiss tomato products,” says purchasing manager Jessica Hirzel, so the company adopted the Dei Fratelli (Italian for “of the brothers”) name years ago on advice from an Italian employee.

Hirzel makes more than 100 canned and jarred products, including diced, marinara and salsas, as well as its first tomato product: canned whole tomatoes. Lou Kozman Jr., director of farm operations, says 300 8-ounce cans of pizza sauce can be created a minute in the pristine processing facility. The shared warehouse space, where mountains of cans are stacked to the high ceiling, looks like an aluminum Alps.

The commitment to a quality tomato product remains strong well into the fourth generation.

“We primarily celebrate the tomato. We let the tomato do the talking,” says Jessica Hirzel, whose favorite product is a fire-roasted pasta sauce.

Today the company grows its own tomatoes, plus contracts with 30 regional growers who care for quality-controlled seedlings transplanted from the Hirzel greenhouses. About 95,000 tons of tomatoes are processed each year from crops grown in fields under Ohio sunshine.

Except for the 42 million seedlings that get their start under glass, no tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, high tunnels or by hydroponics. Harvest is August to October, or when the first hard frost hits.

Dei Fratelli tomato products are gluten-free and kosher, excluding a few that contain cheese. In addition to being a good source of Vitamin C, tomatoes contain lycopene, being studied for its possible role in suppressing cancer cell growth.

Heirloom Favorites
Ohio’s tomato production faces competition from foreign imports. But increased demand for locally grown fresh vegetables helps the state’s smaller growers, including David and Lisa Schacht in Canal Winchester. The Schacht Family Farm (schachtfarmmarket.com) sells most of its tomatoes directly to urban buyers who travel to the farm. Lisa, a past president of the Ohio Produce Marketing Association, primarily grows what her customers want: “a large slicing tomato with solid shoulders and a good skin.”

Karen Conant, owner of RidgeBridge Farm in Avon (ridgebridgefarm.com) grows more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, often older varieties that can produce unpredictable fruit. Conant sells harvested fruit at farmers markets, but her seedlings also have been in high demand by home gardeners the past several years.

“Heirloom tomatoes lend themselves to my personality — I like weirdness,” says Conant, who calls her passion a hobby that got out of control. “I like the color, look and taste of them. People like to collect different kinds. I do tomato tastings on the farm and we take notes on the tomatoes’ complexity. It’s like a wine tasting.”

Among Conant’s favorites: Glory of Moldova, Golden Monarch, German Johnson, Cherokee Purple, Black Pineapple and Kellogg’s Breakfast.

“Heirlooms aren’t fussy, but don’t over-water or over-fertilize them,” says Conant. “And they are artistic. I have plates and bowls of them all over my house just because they are so beautiful.”

Spoken like a true tomato lover.

Harvesting and Keeping Tips

So, what are you going to do with all the ripe tomatoes you grew, bought at a farmers market or inherited from your brother-in-law?

Tomato grower Lisa Schacht suggests avoiding that scenario altogether. She likes pick-your-own farms where consumers can select tomatoes in various stages of ripeness.

“A lot of people think tomatoes have to be ripe [ripened on the vine] when you buy them to really taste good,” says Schacht. “But the plant’s ethylene [a natural plant hormone] is what ripens tomatoes. It will do its job. So select some less ripe tomatoes as well as ready-to-eat ones.”

Don’t put tomatoes in a refrigerator or anywhere cooler than 55 degrees, Schacht advises. And avoid storing them on a sun porch or anywhere that has warm or moist conditions. Let air circulate around tomatoes. They should keep in a bowl in the kitchen for about a week.

Many tomato products will freeze or can well. But don’t forget that local food banks often welcome fresh food donations.  

Patriotic Picnic Potatoes
Courtesy Hirzel Canning Company and Farms | Serves 4–5

Try this delicious alternative to your usual Fourth of July potato salad.

4 bacon slices
2 pounds new potatoes
6 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup Dei Fratelli Chopped
Italian Tomatoes
1 bunch green onions, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 ½ ounces bleu cheese, crumbled
black olives (optional, to taste)

Cook bacon in large, deep skillet over medium/high heat until evenly browned. Drain, crumble and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add potatoes and cook about 15 minutes until tender, but still firm. Drain, cool and chop, leaving skins on.

Whisk together oil, vinegar, chopped tomatoes, green onions, salt and pepper in large bowl. Add potatoes, bacon, cheese and olives and toss to coat.