Go to Virginia, where tomatoes are at their best, plump with a juicy flavor distinctive to the soil they are grown in. Where summer tomato farming is a yesteryear tradition, cultivated and fine-tuned over endless decades.
Thomas Jefferson famously grew tomatoes at Monticello, and legend says he publicly ate a tomato just to debunk a popular notion that tomatoes harmed people. But today, the Virginia tomato flourishes. Grown on Virginia’s Eastern Shore region, farmers supply fresh market tomatoes to the nation. In 2014, the state’s fresh market tomatoes brought in $30 million in farm cash receipts.
“The Eastern Shore has a unique microclimate for a summer tomato harvest,” says Billy Heller, co-CEO/COO of Pacific Tomato Growers, which ships tomatoes from Melfa. “We plant grape tomatoes in Virginia in April. We start harvesting the first of July, continuing through mid- September.”
Heller, whose company grows in other states to provide fresh tomatoes year round, appreciates Virginia’s vegetable farming heritage.
“We’ve invested significantly here and employ farm managers from Virginia,” he says. “The Virginia Eastern Shore is a perfect place for growing grape tomatoes marketed under our Sunripe Certified Brands.”
Growers also harvest the sun- ripened tomatoes further inland. Hanover County is known for “Hanover tomatoes,” famous for a deliciously juicy, just-right flavor. Hanover County’s sandy loam soils are ideal for growing the produce, and Virginia is a major shipper of round-type tomatoes from Hanover and elsewhere.
There are new ways of delivering full-flavored, fresh Virginia tomatoes beyond the traditional summer season. Red Sun Farms operates an 18-acre greenhouse in Dublin, with one-third initially dedicated to certified organic tomato production. Tomatoes are grown hydroponically, using and reusing water through state-of-the art technology. Red Sun Farms plans to expand the greenhouse, which opened in 2014.
Potatoes Built the Farm
Virginia has a rich potato history, too. By 1900, the Eastern Shore was among the country’s top potato-producing regions. Overall, summer potatoes earned the state $19 million in farm cash receipts in 2014.
Virginia potato producer David Hickman has a land rent receipt dated 1872, the year his great-grandfather leased farmland in Accomack County, near Horntown.
“Potatoes have been growing on some part of this farm ever since,” he says.
David Hickman and his brother, Phil Hickman, are vice president and president, respectively, of Dublin Farms, which produces 500 acres of potatoes as well as green beans, corn, soybeans and wheat. Phil’s son, Phillip, and David’s sons, Matthew and Mark, are fifth- generation potato farmers.
David Hickman says they still face some of the same challenges that his great-grandfather did.
“The weather is still going to be unpredictable,” he says. “Modern irrigation equipment helps a lot, and that helps us conserve water. But it can also rain more than you’d like, making it hard to get into fields when you need to.” Science has helped overcome other challenges. “We have much better control of insects and weeds than when I started farming,” Hickman says. “Our pesticides are much improved and safer.”
All potatoes shipped from the farm – 12 to 15 semi-trailer loads sent daily for six weeks, starting around July 1 – must measure up to stringent U.S. and international food safety standards.
The sky was the limit for potato profits a century ago, when some Accomack County landowners known as “Potato Barons” reaped high prices from being the first to provide potatoes to northern cities. However, potatoes are still important to Virginia’s agriculture industry today.