Grainger County, nestled in the eastern part of Tennessee, seems like another unassuming rural region with a small, but content, population of about 22,660. However, this rural county is well known throughout the produce world for one delicious, prized crop – the tomato.
“There’s no comparison to our tomatoes. They have such a good flavor,” says Steve Longmire, owner of Tennessee Homegrown Tomatoes in Rutledge, the county seat. “It’s a combination of the soil and varieties we grow. Plus, we give them a lot of TLC.”
Longmire started Tennessee Homegrown Tomatoes in 1982 on his 252-acre farm, which includes 34 greenhouses with three more planned. A longtime participant in the Pick Tennessee Products program, most of his tomatoes are marketed to Wal-Mart. Longmire delivers them to individual stores so that consumers receive the freshest tomato possible.
“We are direct to stores, not through warehouses,” he says.
He grows red, yellow, Roma and green tomatoes, all in the “fresh market” category. In fact, almost all of Grainger County’s tomatoes are fresh market, meaning they’re meant to be eaten as close to home as possible.
“There’s no one up here that will grow hundreds of acres and ship them everywhere,” Longmire says.
Anthony Carver, Grainger County Extension director, says that the region’s tomatoes are known for having a rich garden flavor, with a homegrown texture and appearance.
“We have about 70 growers and 650-plus greenhouses devoted to tomato production. We’re floating anywhere from 475 to 500 acres of fresh-market tomatoes,” he says.
Carver says that there are a couple of aspects that give Grainger County tomatoes the best possible flavor. One is the range of varieties grown by the farmers. Another is the soil that the tomatoes are grown in.
“The limestone-based soil breaks down quicker than other bedrock bases. This allows our soil to be on the acidic side, which is transferred to the tomato, giving it that great taste,” Carver says.
The last aspect is the management from the farmers.
“Our farmers understand the breakdown and chemical reactions of the plant,” Carver says.
“They want to know if the soil has the correct pH and how the watering system is being managed. All of that plays into the flavor of our tomatoes.”
And just as important to Grainger County farmers as producing a deliciously tasty tomato is producing a safe tomato.
“Without food safety practices, we wouldn’t be selling to any chain stores. Wal-Mart is very strict on food safety and we have strict guidelines we have to go by,” Longmire says.
Those guidelines include detailed policies regarding production, packing, distribution and handling of fresh tomatoes. Attention to safe practices is focused on everything from the quality of the soil where the tomatoes are grown, to the cleanliness of the packing facility, to the delivery to the markets.
To get a taste of the famous tomatoes, visitors can attend the annual Grainger County Tomato Festival, touted as the largest free festival in the state. Held the last full weekend in July, the festival aims to promote all of Grainger County agriculture, but specifically tomatoes, with lots of vendors, entertainment and more.
Find more information at graingercountytomatofestival.com. Tomatoes are also available on-site at many farms and farmers markets, usually beginning April 1.