“Woodleaf at its finest:” Annual tomato festival brings community together

Published 12:05 am Sunday, August 20, 2017

By Rebecca Rider

WOODLEAF — For the people of Woodleaf, tomatoes are in the blood. The small, unincorporated farming community has been growing tomatoes for 110 years — though it’s only recently that they started coming together to celebrate it.

This year was the 11th year of the tomato festival — a community-wide get-together with music, vendors and, of course, tomatoes. The event is traditionally held on the third Saturday in August, when most farmers should be between tomato crops and will have a little time to let loose and celebrate the plant on which their livelihoods depend.

“Happy tomato day!” Linda Bailey announced Saturday. The grounds of Unity Presbyterian Church were packed with families, visitors and vendors. In between music sets, Bailey launched into a quick history of tomato growing in Woodleaf. The tradition was started by two brothers of the Bailey family, who found the plant grew well in Woodleaf’s soil. In summer, they’d cart wagons full of tomatoes up to Statesville to sell.

As the years went on, the number of farms and families grew, until eventually Woodleaf was tomato country.

“Today, tomato farming is a sophisticated operation, like all successful farming has to be,” Bailey said.

And it shows in Woodleaf’s booming tomato business. People come from all over for the annual festival — but many of them are just coming home.

Amanda Huss was born and raised in Woodleaf, but now she lives on the other side of Charlotte with husband Greg and daughters Maelin and Emery. But they still make the drive up to Woodleaf each summer for the festival. It’s a family tradition that’s been going on for nine years now, Amanda said.

“We come here for the fun, the fellowship,” she said.

Amanda actually used to attend Unity Presbyterian Church as a child, and many of the faces she sees at the festival are old friends. And, just has her family has grown, so has the festival.

“It’s grown, it’s grown,” she said. “It’s gotten a lot bigger.”

From the number of attendees, to the number of vendors, to the length of the parade, the festival has grown steadily year after year.

The same is true of Woodleaf native Jennifer Whisnant and her family. Though she moved to Salisbury years ago, Whisnant still comes home to Woodleaf each summer.

“I try to come every year,” she said.

In 11 years, she’s only missed one festival. For Whisnant, the tomato festival is all about the bonds between people, and Woodleaf coming together as a community.

“We’re finally seeing more of the community help out,” she said of the festival.

And for Whisnant, that was something to celebrate. Organizer Patti Safrit agreed.

“It’s just like — it just surrounds you,” she said of the community.

The church hosted a yard sale, West Rowan’s Future Farmers of America club cooked and sold food and the Woodleaf Fire Department and Civitans were on location.

And Safrit said she couldn’t forget the farmers.

“They all put their life on hold to come here and put on this festival,” she said.

The festival, which began at 10 a.m. with a parade, ran until 4 p.m. and featured live music, a contest to choose the festival’s mayor, a tomato eating contest and pageants for children.

“This is Woodleaf at it’s finest,” Safrit said.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.