Tomato festival celebrates Woodleaf community’s heritage
WOODLEAF — Every August, on the third Saturday of the month, the small community of Woodleaf in northwest Rowan County celebrates the tomato.
Tomato festival schedule
The Woodleaf Tomato Festival will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at Unity Presbyterian Church, 885 Woodleaf-Barber Road, Cleveland. Here’s what to expect:
9 a.m. — West Rowan High School Band, “National Anthem”
9:15 a.m. — Lutheridge Cloggers
10 a.m. — Tomato Festival parade with antique tractors and cars, Woodleaf-Barber Road
10:30 to 11:30 a.m. — Gospel Plowboys, bluegrass/gospel
11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. — Daystar, Southern gospel
12:30 p.m. — “Home Grown da’ Maters” Dancers
12:30 p.m. — Little Miss Mater, Tommy Toe, Mater Sprout competition
1 to 2 p.m. — South River Praise Band, contemporary Christian
2:30 p.m. — Silent auction results
2:30 to 3 p.m. — Tomato eating contest
3 to 4 p.m. — Tomato recipe/cook-off, big and funny tomato contest results
All day — Woodleaf grown produce for sale, bake sale, craft booths, attic sale, games and train rides for kids
The area is saturated with family tomato farms, and many of those farmers are faithful members of Unity Presbyterian Church, where the festival kicks off with music, prayer and an “anything goes” antique tractor parade from the fire station to the church grounds.
People deck themselves out in tomato costumes and Tomato Festival T-shirts. They wear shirts or skirts, or even aprons, printed up with tomatoes. And of course, tomato hats. The place is red all over. And if they are lucky, tomatoes are for sale.
As the church volunteers who run this show know as well as the farmers who grow them, tomatoes are picky things.
Some years, the crop isn’t what it should be, in spite of all the modern farming techniques. A tomato’s flavor depends on the variety and point at which it is harvested, says Darrell Blackwelder of the N.C. Extension Office in Rowan County.
To make the festival work, eight years ago when the former church pastor, Jennie Hemrick, and member Patti Safrit brought the idea to fruition, they knew that the festival had to be staged when the farmers could help.
That meant between seasons. A Woodleaf farmer, on his best day, at the height of a season, can harvest 500 bushels per day.
“Sometimes there is a tomato shortage,” said Safrit. “We actually had to buy tomatoes last year for the tomato-eating contest. This year, we encouraged all our backyard gardeners to grow cherry tomatoes for that.”
The Tomato Festival is a family focused all-day event with live music on stage, games and contests for kids, including a toy tractor pull.
Sunflowers usually bloom across Woodleaf-Barber Road from the church and festival-goers pick their own.
The event is a fundraiser for the church’s new fellowship hall.
A team of church members stage a large tent in the front yard and it comfortably shades several hundred people.
For many, the Tomato Festival is a time to catch up with old friends.
“Woodleaf is not just a place on the map,” said Safrit. “People care about each other. It’s a family kind of place.”
There are challenges to meet every year that require a lot of creativity. “I tell the committee that God has to have a sense of humor to let us do all the things we do at the Tomato Festival,” said Safrit.
Farmers have been growing tomatoes in the fertile soil here since around 1900 when two brothers, Hubbard and Radford Bailey, began growing tomatoes for market, using a one-horse wagon to take the crop to Statesville to sell.
The Tomato Festival is a tradition and Safrit says it will have a long life.
“Some day, I’d like to be the Miss Tomato Queen and be the oldest person at the festival,” she said. “That would be so cool.”