Let's give a cheer for our state's flavorful tomatoes

July 09, 2008|By Rob Kasper

For tomato lovers, this month could not get here fast enough. July is the time that the good stuff, tomatoes grown in Maryland fields, starts to ripen.

This year, local tomatoes are especially welcome. They provide a flavorful alternative to what I call "outsider" tomatoes, those grown in distant, warmer states.

These outsider tomatoes are suspects in the great tomato scare. It began in May when health officials linked salmonella outbreaks in New Mexico and Texas to eating fresh tomatoes. Since then, some 869 people nationwide have been infected by Salmonella saintpaul, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Last week, health officials said they were not certain that tomatoes were the culprit, but they did not rule them out.

All along, locally grown tomatoes have been free of suspicion. But they were not plentiful. That is changing. From now until the end of September, locals can displace the "outsiders." That means weeks of lots of juicy BLTs.

Like a lot of gardeners, I had hoped to have my own homegrown tomatoes ready for the table by the Fourth of July. And, like a lot of gardeners, I failed.

I had a couple of promising-looking green orbs. I confess that I considered spray painting them pink, just to rile my fellow gardeners. But I refrained. That would be cheating. I am not above cheating - say, growing a few early bloomers in a hothouse - but covering tomatoes with paint has the drawback of making them taste terrible. Trust me on this. So I wait for Mother Nature, and it looks like she might deliver any day now.

I learned, however, that some local growers, more skilled than I, have already reaped a harvest.

Tom Albright, who runs Albright Farms Produce in Monkton, told me he has been picking tomatoes since the first of June.

He grew these tomatoes, a variety called Trust, in the ground inside massive greenhouses. The greenhouses are so big, he said, he drives a tractor through them.

He has several tomato plantings, he said. The early plants go in greenhouses, and the later ones grow outdoors in fields. That latter crop should be ready to pick in late July, he said.

This spring, as the worries about "outsider" tomatoes swept through the market, sales of Albright's locally grown greenhouse tomatoes took off at the Sunday farmers' market in Baltimore and his produce stand in Jacksonville. In prior years, part of his early tomato crop was sold to wholesalers, he said. But this year, demand was so strong that all of his early tomatoes were sold in retail outlets.

"People like the fact that they are grown locally, that they know where the tomatoes come from," Albright said.

Sue Gragan told me that the really ugly tomatoes that she and her husband, Dan, grew this spring at D & S Farm in St. Mary's County have been selling well. Called "Mr. Ugly," these red tomatoes are grown in a greenhouse. Instead of smooth skin and soft curves, these tomatoes look wrinkled and knotty. Or, as she put it, "They have a lot of dimples."

But the winning quality, Gragan said, is their flavor. When I spoke with Gragan, she and her husband were carting about 75 pounds of Mr. Ugly tomatoes to sell at the Wednesday afternoon farmers' market in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Usually, she said, Mr. Ugly sells out.

Farmers tell me that Maryland's field-grown tomatoes are flooding markets this week. Tomatoes grown on the Eastern Shore ripen about 10 days to two weeks earlier than those grown on the western side of the state, Albright said. But the tomatoes on the western side of the state have more flavor, he said.

Richard Seletzky agreed. Along with his son, Ian, he grows tomatoes on Richfield Farm in Carroll County. They also sell some tomatoes grown on the Eastern Shore at farmers' markets in Baltimore, Towson and at their produce stand in Hampstead.

The sandy soil on the Shore heats up faster in the spring, Seletzky told me, yielding early tomatoes. But, to his taste, the tomatoes grown in the richer soils of Carroll County have more flavor.

Seletzky, who is 69 and has been growing vegetables since he was 10, said that he has noticed that over the years, the growing season has been slower to start, but lingers longer in the fall.

"When I was a kid, which was a long time ago, we used to plant around St. Patty's Day. Now we plant in mid-April, but we harvest well through October," he said.

This April, he and his son planted a field of tomato plants, then covered them for a few weeks with cloth to protect them from the cold.

Those tomatoes, he predicted, will ripen this week.

"By the 20th [of July] we will be rolling," Seletzky said. "By then, we might have too many tomatoes."

After a spring in which most of the reports about tomatoes dealt with sickness, this was good news.

The locals are in; our tomato troubles are over.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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