COLUMBIA – Mike and Nikki Dennis take their tomatoes seriously.
The couple from Clark brought their three children, Kynna, 9, Ava, 2, and Mikah, 2 months, to Thursday night’s Tomato Festival at the MU Bradford Research and Extension Farm. The Dennises have been coming to the festival for three years and recruited six friends to join them this time. They have 60 tomato plants in their home garden.
“We’ve got the whole family here,” said Mike Dennis, 34. “Every year we come and plant more and more heirlooms.”
Around 600 people — 200 more than last year — came to sample and rate 78 varieties of tomatoes and 44 types of peppers, said farm superintendent Tim Reinbott.
At press time, tallies for the most popular tomato had not been calculated, but Reinbott expected top scores for the cherry tomatoes.
“The small ones again have jumped out," Reinbott said. "They’re so sweet. It’ll be a battle between the Super Sweet 100s and the Sunsugars.”
The Brandywine, Biltmore and 1884 heirloom tomatoes also looked like high-scorers. The tiny purple tomatillo, which tastes like smoky cheese, also did well.
The richly-colored Carolina Gold got points for good looks from Reinbott, though it wasn’t popular with the crowd.
“If I were a tomato, I’d look just like that,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Five hundred pounds of tomatoes, a couple hundred pounds of peppers and seven gallons of salsa weren’t enough for the voracious crowd.
“We had twice as many chips as last year, and we had to go out and get some more, and we ran out of tomatoes, salsa, everything,” Reinbott said. “It’s a nice problem to have. The only thing I can think to do is plant twice as many next year so we’ll have plenty.”
Because of the rain, tables with the samples were set up inside the farm’s conference center.
Tomato yields were down this summer because of heat and humidity and about 15 percent of the farm’s tomato varieties didn’t make it to the festival.
“We started out in early spring, May, June, and it was pretty wet," Reinbott said. "The dew points were the highest ever, and with the warm summer, these were the perfect conditions for fungus and bacterial diseases. We’re lucky we had them. It was terrible this year.”
Because of the tough growing conditions, Reinbott said the standing-room-only seminars about cultivating tomatoes and peppers given by three horticulturalists and a plant scientist were popular with the crowd.
“People were eating up every word, with all the problems we’ve had,” he said.
Other festival-goers had their own tomato growing pains this season. All the vegetables in Tom and Jane Mudd’s Fulton home garden did well, except for the tomatoes. The Mudds came to the festival to scout out new, tasty tomatoes to plant next summer.
“We got a few, but not enough to freeze or can,” said Jane Mudd, 56, of her tomato crop. “Which is too bad because we love tomatoes.”
“There was too much water," said Tom Mudd, 56. "It leeched all the nutrients, and (the tomato plants) just didn’t produce fruit.”
Linda Van Engelenhoven, 61, of Kingdom City came to the festival to taste the varieties.
“I’m always looking for that elusive, wonderful tomato,” she said. Van Engelenhoven's tomatoes survived the inclement weather because they were grown in soilless bedding, but some of her friends lost all their plants this year.
Dave Smith, 59, of Columbia has grown Brandywine heirlooms, beefsteaks and grape and cherry tomatoes for about five years and got a late yield this year because of the rains.
“I had a friend who didn’t get any because it was wet,” he said.
One woman has given up on growing tomatoes at her home but not because of the weather. Her tomatoes were just too irresistible.
“The deer ate all mine up. I don’t have a garden anymore,” said Marcey Mertens, 45, of Columbia.