WOODLEAF — Tomatoes bring out the best in people. Especially Woodleaf tomatoes.
Think about it. Most varieties are red — and we all look good in red.
They’re juicy, too, sort of like the nectar of summer. Nothing tastes better between two slices of bread.
The good tomatoes — well, you can just pull them off the vine and eat them like an apple.
Some people swear they can taste the difference between a tomato grown in Woodleaf and one that isn’t.
Julia Wetmore, whose family knows a lot about growing tomatoes, shrugs off that notion, but she says you can definitely tell the difference between tomatoes off the farm here and those trucked in from who knows where.
“There’s nothing like a homegrown tomato from Woodleaf,” she said.
And so Woodleaf once again honored the tomato Saturday at the Sixth Annual Tomato Festival at Unity Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Phil Hagen, dressed as “Phyllis” because he was a contestant for 2012 Miss Tomato Queen, said the festival started as a way to raise funds for the church’s new fellowship hall.
Now that it’s in place, festival proceeds help pay on the note. But the festival also represents a way for the Unity congregation to reach out, Hagen said.
“It’s not just a church event, it’s a community event,” he added before losing the Tomato Queen contest.
Lucas Safrit has served as the festival’s “Tomato Tom” since the event started. Over six years, he has been growing like a Big Boy tomato on the vine.
He was 11 years old when he first donned the overalls, white T-shirt and straw hat. Now he’s 6-foot-3 and close to 290 pounds.
“I have no intention of stopping,” the 16-year-old Safrit said of giving up the Tomato Tom position for more ripe mascot roles. “I love this church a lot.”
On stage, Safrit served as the day’s emcee for entertainment that included Elvis impersonator Eddie Wetmore, cloggers, gospel singers, a blue grass-gospel band and, of course, the funky Tomato Festival Parade and tomato-related contests.
Deborah Knoblock beat out three men and four women in the tomato-eating contest. She downed almost two pounds of grape tomatoes in 5 minutes.
Little Mater Sprout Kinsley Shumake wowed the festival crowd with her tomato bikini.
For the first time ever, the crown — or is it a vine — of Miss Tomato Festival went to a father-son duo of David and Talton Correll, who went by the stage names of Brandywine (a kind of tomato, by the way) and Taltina.
Laura Watson grew the festival’s biggest tomato, a Rocky Top variety weighing in at 1.64 pounds.
A Brandywine tomato also led the field in the taste-testing, conducted by the Rowan Master Gardeners Club. (See the accompanying box for all the winners.)
As always the Tomato Festival Parade was brief, but it had a lot of character.
Spectators leisurely took their positions in front of the church and at the edge of Woodleaf-Barber Road.
Across the road was a field of sunflowers in full bloom next to several acres of Wetmore tomatoes.
The parade entries encompassed classic cars, antique tractors, horse-drawn and donkey-drawn wagons, local fire trucks and last, but surely not least, a three-seat tomato picker.
Patti Safrit, Lucas’ mother and coordinator for the festival, left her duties on the ground long enough to ride in the parade.
“I’m one of the dancing tomatoes, so I have to get ready,” she said, hurrying away.
Patti Safrit and the other tomato dancers rode on the back of a firetruck with Santa Claus. It was August, yes, but Woodleaf likes to be first.
Sam Correll steered the big tomato picker, slowly inching down the parade route, as if he were going down rows in the field.
“It’s not meant for road traffic,” his wife, Gloria, reported.
And Gloria wanted to get in this dig, too: “He’s not used to driving it — we have other people picking.”
The good collection of tractors included John Deere, Allis Chalmers and Farmall models.
Johnny Jordan drove his 1950 Allis Chalmers “WD” all the way from Cooleemee and fixed a platform in the back on which his wife, Linda, could sit in a metal lawn chair.
Jordan still uses the tractor on his farm, so “I ain’t going to pretty it up,” he says.
But back to the tomatoes.
Doug and Donna Groce had fun at the Master Gardeners’ booth tasting five different varieties of tomatoes and ranking their favorites.
“My results were different from hers,” Doug said. “... My No. 1 was her No. 4.”
This may be understandable because they just were married in June. Donna said she judged the tomatoes on initial taste, then the finish, much like a wine connoisseur.
Doug went more on texture and whether the tomatoes were bitter or sweet. He leaned toward the sweet.
“It was fun,” he said.
In about two hours, the Master Gardeners filled out 106 ballots.
Darrell Blackwelder, Rowan County Extension director, said the five varieties that festival-goers tasted were all from commercial growers in Rowan County.
He said Woodleaf tomatoes have a storied tradition and strong reputation for their quality.
“I don’t know whether it’s the soil or growing conditions or what,” Blackwelder said.
Bill Wetmore, whose family has 85,000 to 90,000 plants in the fields, says no matter whether you like red tomatoes, sweet pink tomatoes or acid-free yellow tomatoes, a vine-ripe tomato is the best.
Just think of all the things tomatoes accomplished Saturday — from forcing men into dresses, to bringing Santa in early, to paying down on a building.
“Tomatoes have always been an important part of this community,” said Sue Moore, waiting for the parade to start with her grandchildren.
They bring out the best in Woodleaf.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.
Winners from Woodleaf Tomato Festival
• Tomato-eating contest — Deborah Knoblock
• Little Mater Sprout — Kinsley Shumaker
• Little Tommy Toe — Cade Scruggs
• Little Miss Mater — Reese Miller
• Miss Tomato Festival 2012 — The father/son team of David and Talton Correll (stage names, Brandywine and Taltina)
• Most unique — pickled grape tomatoes, Virginia Schmidke; honorable mention, tomato pie by Mildred Perrell
• Best dessert — German (Johnson) chocolate cake, Patti Safrit
• Best main dish — Anna Shumaker
• Best side dish — tomato corn casserole, Mildred Perrell
• Best appetizer — pineapple/peach salsa, Patti Safrit
• Best of show: grilled chicken topped with black bean salsa
• Biggest tomato — 1.64 lbs, Laura Watson, Rocky Top
• Best of show — 1.30 lbs, Wandle Wagoner, pink tomato
Tomato Tasting Results
• 1st — Brandywine
• 2nd — Tiger Stripe
• 3rd — Rocky Top
• 4th — Stripey
• 5th — Biltmore