If there’s one fruit that embodies the pinnacle of an Ohio summer it’s a plump, field-ripened, sun-warmed tomato. This year, a warm spring put a jump start on the growing season. When tomatoes came on sooner than usual throughout the state, the race was on to slice them into sandwiches and salads, chop them for salsas and sauces, and squeeze them into refreshing juice. The early timing made a lot of tomato lovers happy, including Jackson County farmers Brandon and Julie Weber who grow a garden variety of vegetable crops on a fraction of their 300-acre farm. Throughout the summer, they tend and harvest cucumbers, bell peppers, sweet corn and ornamental gourds and sell them from the farm and at local farmers markets. But what their customers know them best for are their tomatoes, primarily beefsteak types, the largest variety of cultivated tomatoes. They’re big, juicy and, in a world where tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes and color, the Webers think their tomatoes, plain and simple, take the prize.
The Webers tweak the growing season for tomatoes by using two high tunnels, unheated portable greenhouses that rely on radiant or solar energy to create ideal conditions for tomatoes throughout the majority of the year. One of the most compelling reasons to use high tunnels is that they can stretch the growing season for tomatoes over those strictly field grown.
“We think this kind of environment is better than outdoors,” said Brandon. “We control the humidity and temperature.” The first high tunnel is planted in early March and grown on a row covered in plastic to warm the ground and control weeds and grasses.
Tomatoes continue to ripen in the high tunnels into the cold months of December. “We have a natural gas well and a heater inside,” said Brandon. “If the temperature drops below 55 degrees, the heat kicks on.”
“I guess we’re cheating nature but it’s how we get a jump on the season and extend it longer,” said Julie. “It is also why we grow indeterminate types of tomatoes. They keep growing.” Also called “vining” tomatoes, indeterminates are the most common type of tomato plants. They grow, vine, set and ripen fruits until killed off by a hard frost. As the Webers establish the rows in the grow tunnel, indeterminate varieties, like Goliath, sweet, smooth fleshed juicy beefsteaks, are planted on the inner rows and staked so they can grow tall. They live up to their name in the 13-foot tall high tunnel. “We’ve had to stand on a step ladder sometimes to pick the tomatoes,” recalled Julie.
Other beefsteak varieties like Mountain Fresh and Carolina Gold, smooth fruit with sweet mild flavor, are planted on the outer rows, flanking the Goliath plantings.
“One concern we had when we started growing in high tunnels was pollination,” said Brandon. “Inside, the air movement can sometimes be slow and weak.” He solved that problem by using a leaf blower, which moves the pollen around in the tunnel and vibrates the fruit cluster and trellis system.
The couple sticks to growing a few basic varieties of tomatoes, which can yield up to 30 pounds per plant.
Typically the Webers and their customers go without tomatoes for only about four months and Brandon recalls how his family stretched the season even when tomatoes were green and refused to budge to ripening.
“My great grandmother would pick the green tomatoes in October and wipe them down with a very weak solution of bleach and water to kill any bacteria and then wrap them up in newspapers to store them and let them ripen,” he recalled. The family would enjoy homegrown tomatoes right through March and while the taste couldn’t duplicate that of a summer vine-ripened tomato, they were pretty good for an Ohio winter.
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.
914 Weber Road | Jackson
You Say Tomato…
All tomatoes are delicious but not all are created equal. Each variety has specific purposes. Beefsteaks are the largest of the tomato varieties and found more often at farm stands and farmers markets. In a variety of colors from white to yellow, pink to red, and burgundy to purple, they are meaty, juicy and best eaten raw, in salads or sliced for sandwiches, or used for juicing.
Salad tomatoes or slicers are smaller than beefsteaks and even more flavorful and juicy. Use them like beefsteaks, but they are better choices for filling with cold salad mixtures or for stuffing and baking.
Cherry tomatoes are the smallest and sweetest varieties, ranging in size from about the tip of your thumb to somewhat larger in oblong, round and teardrop shapes. They are good in salads and appetizers, and for eating out of hand. Roasting cherry tomatoes intensifies the sweetness.
Plum or paste tomatoes are usually treated as interchangeable, but a true paste tomato is larger than a plum, even meatier, and not always the expected egg shape. Both are highly flavorful, with few seeds and less juice, making them best for cooked sauces and canning, drying or roasting for the freezer.