Haywood pitches unique tomato

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Vidalia onions. Georgia peaches. Washington apples. Haywood County tomatoes?

The formal name is still up in the air, but local officials are aiming to make Haywood County known for a variety of tomato unique to the area.

The idea for a product that would distinguish Haywood County came out of the Buy Haywood program, a campaign established through a $60,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation to help market local produce. The Golden Leaf Foundation provides funding to assist farmers in making the transition away from a tobacco-based economy.

Haywood County has long been known for tomato production. According to North Carolina State horticulturalist Randy Gardner, who is based in Haywood County, the moderate daytime temperatures and night temperatures in the upper 50s and low 60s paired with decent amounts of rainfall make for an ideal tomato-growing climate.

When the Buy Haywood program began, Gardner saw potential in a certain hybrid tomato he had worked to develop in the area.

“This hybrid I’ve developed has really, really good flavor, so I thought it would fit in well for (the county) to promote and sell it as field-grown,” Gardner said. The tomato was originally developed in a greenhouse, but adapted remarkably well to the soils of Haywood County, he said.

Buy Haywood project coordinator George Ivey also recognized the potential for a tomato unique to the area.

“The varieties (of tomato) grown in Haywood are grown in other counties, so you can’t say distinctly that varieties are exclusive to Haywood County. I thought if we had the opportunity to have a variety exclusive (to the area), that would create a niche and demand,” Ivey said.

Gardner’s hybrid is a cross between a grape tomato and a large fruited slicing tomato, and retains the best qualities of both, according to Gardner. The tomato tastes like a higher sugar grape tomato, but has the disease resistance of the larger one.

Jay Johnson of J.W. Johnson Tomato Company, which is in charge of marketing the tomato, describes it as a “cocktail tomato — it’s bigger than a grape or a cherry, and smaller than a Roma.” Johnson added that the tomatoes are round, a deep dark red color, and pack a lot of flavor. They would be something used for salads or sandwiches or “just eaten fresh.”

Johnson said because of their gourmet nature, the tomatoes will be marketed “to stores that are small chains, or local, independent chains, with a store format providing unique food items rather than just staples.” Though this may mean targeting grocers such as Earth Fare and Whole Foods, Johnson assures that “if Wal-Mart wanted to come by and buy all these, we’d be happy to supply them.”

To market a tomato, Johnson must talk to people at all ends of the food-supply spectrum. His job is to gauge the market for supply and demand trends as well as convince grocery stores and other retailers to buy his product.

Johnson said he talks to other shippers to see how their crop looks and how their phones are ringing. He also speaks to everyone from “the people that walk up on the dock to buy a box at a time” to the sales departments of major grocery stores.

Ivey has worked on his share of marketing as well, helping to create a Web site, a Buy Haywood logo and labels to stick on the tomatoes and their boxes.

“Expect a lot of advertising in the next little bit,” he assured.

Despite his optimism, Ivey admits marketing the Haywood tomato won’t be easy.

“It’s sometimes a bit of an uphill struggle to get folks to change. They’ve been doing business the same way for years. To get them to embrace a particular product from a particular county ... it’s not an easy task. It generally comes down to supply and demand — we’ve got supply, but we need to make sure customers are asking chefs and grocery store managers for Haywood County products,” Ivey said.

Ivey said an ideal goal would be for customers to refuse to buy out-of-state products.

The prospect of a tough sell doesn’t shake Johnson’s confidence in the Haywood tomato, which will be sold in 1-pound clamshell packages of nine or 10.

“It’s a unique item from what I’ve researched,” he said. “It’s going to have a great flavor since it’s grown in the elements and picked at peak flavor. It fills in that segment.”

As for a name?

Gardner has suggested Mountain Star Gourmet, in honor of the tomato’s origins.

Buy Haywood

The idea of a program to market local produce and preserve agricultural traditions in Haywood County has been in the works for several years.

A significant decline in tobacco production, once North Carolina’s main agricultural export, has forced local farmers to switch to another crop staple or risk going out of business completely. This, coupled with increasing development and a series of floods in 2004, drew attention to the growing need to preserve area farms and the agricultural heritage of Haywood County.

Buy Haywood seeks to promote crops grown in the area, such as tomatoes and peppers, and develop stronger local markets for these products through various initiatives such as workshops, festivals and advertising.

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