COLUMBIA — Heat and a hailstorm have killed the champion.
The strain of Brandywine tomatoes that won visitor’s hearts and votes last year at MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center's annual Tomato Festival won’t even make it into the competition this Thursday.
WHAT: Seventh annual Tomato Festival
WHEN: Thursday, 4- 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Inside MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center's Conference Center, 4968 Rangeline Road.
But Heatwave and Celebrity, two strong contenders, have thrived. Of the 115 varieties planted at the research farm, they were among the 65 that survived an abundance of heat and a hammering by an early July hailstorm.
“It’s good to have problems,” Tim Reinbott, center superintendent said, “because then you learn from them.”
He now knows that varieties such as the aptly-named Heatwave and commonly-grown Celebrity can take high heat and still produce a healthy crop of tomatoes.
The peppers also fared well. All 60 varieties that were planted will be available for tastings this year.
“They’re a hot weather machine,” Reinbott said.
The peppers are a key ingredient in the different salsas Marilee Knerr, a summer worker at Bradford, will be making for the festival. The peppers range from mild and sweet to fiery hot. And they can be deceptive in appearance.
Reinbott holds out two identical peppers — one a sweet, mild variety called Fooled You* and the other, an intense jalapeño. He grabs one, takes a deep bite and chokes. “That’s the hot one,” he rasps, coughing and spitting. “You have to be careful.”
Happily for visitors, varieties will be labeled when the festival starts on Thursday, and salsa samples will note which peppers are used in each batch. There will be plenty of milk available to help take the sting out of the hotter choices.
Though tomatoes and peppers are the main attraction each year, Reinbott introduced tomatillas three years ago and they have been a popular addition. These small fruits grow inside a husk and their varieties have tastes such as cheese and apples.
In addition to tastings, the festival will host talks by two local experts. James Quinn, horticulture specialist at the MU Extension, will discuss disease and insect management, and David Trinklein, an MU professor of plant sciences, will give a talk titled, “Tomatoes One-on-One.”
Eleven local restaurants will display their own tomato products, such as pizza sauces and salsas, some of which used the tomatoes and peppers grown at the research center this summer.
When it isn’t festival week, the vegetables produced at the center are used by Campus Dining at MU or donated to the Central Missouri Food Bank. Since production peaks in July, when Campus Dining closes, the center has already donated several hundred pounds of tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants to the food bank this year, Reinbott said.
Looking ahead to the next growing season, Reinbott has big plans for his experimental sweet corn patch. Every year Reinbott holds a tasting for MU employees involved in its production, but next year he hopes to bring it to the public. He hopes new varieties such as Ruby Queen, with its bright purple kernels, and a new hybrid that produces sweet and tender kernels that can be eaten raw, might be popular with the public.
But for now, several days of picking, washing and chopping peppers and tomatoes lie ahead for the staff at the research farm.