Woodleaf festival celebrates all things ’mater

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 10, 2014

WOODLEAF — The eighth annual Woodleaf Tomato Festival, celebrating more than a century of tomato farming in the community, will be held Saturday, Aug. 16, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Unity Presbyterian Church, 885 Woodleaf-Barber Road.  
A 10-foot inflatable tomato will be unveiled at this year’s celebration, riding in the 10 a.m. parade, along with horses, antique tractors and fire trucks. The big tomato, sponsored by Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten, will be center stage for a later event — a 60-foot Tomato Drop on New Year’s Eve that the planners are calling “Woodleaf’s Rocking Eve.”
The Tomato Festival is a free, family focused, all-day event with live music on stage, games and contests for kids, including a bouncy house and Harry Fink’s antique toy tractor pull, a Tomato Hole tournament (think corn hole) train rides, a silent auction, bake sales, a community attic sale, hot sandwiches by College Barbecue in Salisbury, a tomato recipe cook-off, a tomato-eating contest, a tomato-tasting contest, a Little Miss ’Mater, Little Tommy Toe, Little ’Mater Blossom, and Miss Tomato Festival contests, a tomato cook-off (watch out for all the salsas), crafts and craft demonstrations.
Woodleaf’s “Home Grown da’Maters,” a dancing team, performs, works the crowd and puts everyone in the spirit of “all things tomato.” Festival-goers wear tomato shirts and tomato hats. The place is red all over. This year’s festival T-shirt features the theme: “Woodleaf Tomatoes: Because Tomatoes Are NOT All Created Equal.”
Ham biscuits and tomato sandwiches are also big items, and this year, the church volunteers are selling home-canned fruits and vegetables from Woodleaf gardens. Fresh vegetables and fruits from nearby farms are always a big hit.
The event is a fundraiser for the church’s new fellowship hall. This year, 10 percent of the proceeds will go to the West Rowan Bible Teaching Association, a 65-year-old Bible educational program for students started at Unity Church and supported by area churches.
For many, the Tomato Festival is a community reunion — a time to catch up with old friends. Church planners call it community outreach.
A committee plans the event, always held on the third Saturday in August, but it takes the entire church of 100-plus members to pull it off. Seeing the church members work together for a common cause and have a good time is a blessing, says organizer Patti Safrit. 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,” says Safrit.
A week before the big festival day, the Tomato Trot 5K, brings in around 150 runners who love the idea of racing the rural roads at sunset on a hot Friday night, making their way between rows of tomatoes and fields of corn stalks. The race was held Friday.
The first Woodleaf Tomato Drop on New Year’s Eve, featuring the big tomato, will extend the church’s connection to tomato farming. The Cleveland Volunteer Fire Department will donate its ladder truck for the event so that the tomato can descend — slowly — 60 feet.
Farmers have been growing tomatoes in the fertile soil in Woodleaf since around 1900, when a one-horse wagon was used to take the crop to market in nearby towns. They called the soil “brown sugar,” and the farms built a reputation for good-tasting tomatoes. When the community still had a depot, tomatoes were loaded onto refrigerated rail cars and shipped to Northern cities. Today, the crops are trucked to Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Greensboro, Roanoke, Lynchburg and other locations. Produce stands in some of these places post signs that read: “We Have Woodleaf Tomatoes!”
Many of the tomato farm families, now third-generation, are members of Unity Church.