Heirloom Tomatoes Focus of Nebraska Festival

This year I was lucky enough to find the Heirloom Tomato Festival being held near Nebraska City, only an hour away from where I live! We decided to head down over the Labor Day weekend so we could expand our heirloom tomato horizons. This year in our own garden we are growing two heirloom varieties, Brandywine and Sun Gold, but we are always on the lookout for new and delicious varieties to grow.

The festival was being hosted by the Wostrel Family’s Union Orchard, just outside of Union, Nebraska. We drove up to a charming red painted farm store to the tune of live music provided by the Blozen Beer Band.

They were very enthusiastic.

Their store itself was beautiful and laid out so that the delicious looking vegetables produced in the fields behind the store were the first things you saw entering the door. Everything there looked and smelled delicious; it was hard to tear ourselves away from the products the orchard offered long enough to go seek out the tomatoes!

I want all of you.

We easily found the long table full of tomato samples. The display was very stylish, plates full of sliced tomatoes rested on a white tablecloth, with whole tomatoes being proudly presented on top of overturned wine glasses.

All of these fresh heirloom tomatoes were absolutely delicious, not one tasted exactly the same and all of them were miles ahead of the standard store bought tomato. My favorite tomato was the disconcertingly name Bloody Butcher tomato, which was resting on the table near one of the largest tomatoes I’ve ever seen labeled, appropriately enough, the Bear Claw tomato.

It barely even fits on that wine glass!

While I was there I was lucky enough to have a chat with Terry Wostrel, who answered a few questions for me about the Festival.


Sarah Johnson: Is this the first year you’re hosting the Heirloom tomato Festival?

Terry Wostrel: Yes, we’ve only owned this orchard for about a year and a half, and it was pretty run down so we’re trying to bring it back to life. We’ve had to replant a lot of fruit trees so that takes time, but our thought was that we could do the tomatoes, and expose people to some vegetables, especially tomatoes, that they had just never experienced before.

SJ: Can you tell us about what benefits heirloom tomatoes have compared to the hybrid varieties you usually see in grocery stores?

TW: I’ve grown them in my own backyard for years and years. The basic gist of the tomatoes that you buy in the grocery store is that they often contain a mutation that keeps them from ripening completely, so heirlooms, one, they have the history and two, they have a taste that many people haven’t experienced, and it’s fun to see the vegetables that have a more diverse genetic background and come from different sources and have stories from various parts of the country, especially the Amish people. It’s fun to see these seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation.

SJ: How many types of tomatoes are you growing here this year?

TW: We have 33. I spoke with Laurel, who has a business, she’s in southern California. Laurel has a website HeirloomTomatoPlants.com. She sells about 200 varieties of tomato plants, and I bought plants from her for my own personal garden for five to seven years. She has a wonderful diversity of colors of tomatoes, and she has a story on each plant.

SJ: What would you say is your most popular variety that you sell here this year?

TW: You know, that’s hard to say. We are struggling with getting people to realize that all tomatoes aren’t red. And that they come in different shapes and sizes, they’re not all globe shaped. So that’s a cultural barrier that many people have.

SJ: Do you have a favorite?

TW: Well I’m a Nebraska native and when we hear the Nebraska Wedding Tomato and realize the story of that. When you imagine on the plains a hundred years ago on your wedding day, getting gifts of seeds and you can grow them for your own personal use, to sell or to feed your family here in Nebraska, I think that should be my favorite, the Nebraska Wedding Tomato. Those seeds have been passed down for at least a hundred years.

SJ: What made you want to go into the farming business?

TW: Well, farming has been a big part of my family legacy since 1875; it’s when my Great Grandfather Anton harvested his first crop. So, that’s close to 140 years. However, I was the third son of a farmer so I was told at a very young age that I needed to do something else. My older brother, 16 years older than me, was being groomed to be the farmer. So I went and took another path, I’ve practiced dentistry for a number of years. But the biggest issue here is my youngest son, who wanted to work outside more. We had spoken about having an orchard at some point, and he graduated from college six years ago so two years ago he was really pushing to get this, we had talked about the orchard so here we are. We found this orchard that was quite run down and we needed to rejuvenate it, to bring it back to life, and I’ve always enjoyed challenges. Plus it allowed me to spend a lot of extra time with Clint, my son.

SJ: What do you feel is the most challenging thing you’ve encountered refurbishing this old orchard?

TW: Well, just the organization and managing from a distance is the biggest issue for me. I don’t have the opportunity to be with Clint on a day-to-day basis here, but we’ve been fortunate with communication we can do emails and telephone calls, but it takes time. I’m kind of an impatient kind of guy, but I know that those trees need to get in the ground and it’ll just take time. We had planted close to 6,000 new fruit trees this year.

SJ: How many acres do you grow on?

TW: We only have 60 but 5,000 of the trees are planted high density, which means they’re planted at 907 trees per acre and that is a cultural change from what most people imagine. You imagine these big apple trees that are 30 feet tall, but they have many disadvantages. One is that they’re hard to pick, the apples are up along the canopy on the very edge of tree and you have to use ladders. Secondly, for the full-size trees it takes seven years to bring those trees into production. So you have difficulty harvesting, the long time until production, and also they’re more prone to disease because with this big canopy the moisture gathers there and they’re more prone to fungus. So when you have the smaller trees, the dwarf trees, they come in production starting in year two. You don’t have to get on ladders, and if you have a u-pick, people can come out and harvest them themselves. Even a 3-year-old who comes with their parents can reach up and grab an apple and be a part of that. So that I think is a real treat.

SJ: Do you have any advice for people who want to grow heirloom tomatoes themselves in their home gardens?

TW: Feel free to experiment, there are hundreds of different varieties to experiment with, and follow the directions. Don’t try to cram them into too small a space, give them room to breathe. That is really the best advice. They may be prone to blight and things if they’re condensed in too small of a space but it’s an adventure. It’s an adventure in gardening to try something different and to really experiment with that, and to share that with your children, and then celebrate when they learn the tastes, and shapes et cetera. Our society as a group has become very dependent on a small number of plants, and the heirloom plants have a wide variety of genetic diversity. It’s an adventure, maybe not for everybody but we certainly enjoy it.

SJ: Do you plan on hosting the Heirloom Tomato Festival in upcoming years?

TW: Time will tell. Whether we plant as many varieties as what we have in subsequent years, I don’t know. But we’ll work to bring these varieties in front of people so that they can experience some different tastes.

After I thanked Terry for taking the time to tell us a bit his tomatoes (and sample some of their delicious fried green tomatoes), I had to make the difficult decision on which of their products I wanted to take home with me. After collecting a generous armful, I said goodbye to Terry and his wonderful wife, Carla, and headed home. The Heirloom Tomato Festival of Nebraska was a wonderful experience and well worth the trip. I’d happily recommend it to anyone who wants to try new varieties of tomatoes, or anyone who just wants high quality farm fresh products. If they decide to host a festival next year, I plan to bring my whole family!

I came for the tomatoes, but I left addicted to the apple pie.

Heirloom Tomatoes Are the Best

I’m a big fan of tomatoes, not just any tomatoes, I have to have heirloom tomatoes.  The taste and scent has been bred out of the hybrids.  The hybrids just don’t smell like tomatoes.  Google heirloom tomatoes and you’ll find literally hundreds.  Some of the ones I have tried are Black Krim, Brandywine, Black Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Beefsteak, and German and Mennonite Pink, but my most favorite is Cherokee Purple. 

 Cherokee Purple: mature in 80 days, tomatoes are large 10-14 oz. with a very dark red flesh, shows good disease resistance, a problem with the old favorites. It’s a very good producer, and has an excellent flavor. It is said to have originated with the Cherokee Nation.  The skin is a dark maroon color with green shoulders. It has a fantastic flavor.  Last year it was the only tomato that bore heavily during the crazy summer we had, of alternating drought and too much rain.

I grow my heirlooms from seed every year that I saved from the finest large tomato of each variety.  This year I purchased new seeds as my Cherokee Purple seems to have crossed with some of the other varieties.  I’m also trying a yellow brandywine and  a  German Pink. 

Tomato cages for these plants can’t be wimpy.  If you use those little wimpy tomato cages for heirlooms, they won’t support the massive height and weight of heirlooms. Thirteen years ago I bought a 100 foot roll of concrete wire and made cages about 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter.  Some I use for my cucumber vines. They’ve held up all these years and even survived an escaped herd of horses thundering through a stack of them one winter. I don’t see how one didn’t break a leg.  The concrete wire is expensive for a roll, but you figure up the cost of replacing these little rinky dink store bought cages every year or so and they’ll pay for themselves in short time.  Mine still have many more years of life left in them. 

I usually wait until my tomatoes are a foot to foot and half tall before planting in the garden.  I dig a hole to a depth that only an inch of the plant is showing.  You need a strong root system for tomatoes.  I strip all but the top leaves off.  In the planting hole, I’ll sprinkle some 3 month time released fertilizer and a little of Epsom salt.  One thing I’ve tried the last couple of years is putting some of the water retention crystals in the hole.  Cover up the plants leaving just the top few leaves out. After planting I put a layer of newspaper down and about 3 to 4 inches of mulch on top of the papers.  Using this method, I hardily watered my plants, even during a severe drought for the last couple of years.  The newspaper and mulch are tilled in the next fall to add organic matter to the soil. 

My tomato sandwich recipe: I like multi-grain bread spread with honey mustard salad dressing, add one thick slice either of the Cherokee purple or Beefsteak or other large heirloom. Sprinkle with just a little pinch of salt or garlic salt and chow down.  Oh and plenty of napkins are needed. 

The cicadas are still raising racket that sounds like a whole neighborhood burglary alarms going off and covering the trunks and limbs of all my trees.  A fried of mine called the police not knowing what the noise was thinking some one was up to no good at a neighbor’s house. Friday, while I was moving grass, I got tired of being popped in the back of the head and hearing a screech over my ear protection.  The weekend I tried to finish mowing until the belt shredded on my 5 foot finishing mower. It’s the same brand as the four foot one that I had for over 12 years and had the original belt on it when I sold it with my old tractor. This mower is a year and a half old and the belt shreds.  I can’t complete that job, so I put the tiller on the tractor to plow Mom’s and my garden.  She’s wanted to plant her sweet potatoes for several days.  First I had to remove the cedar tree I had wrapped around the tines the last time I used it.  That took over an hour to do around the hooligans licking me in the face and laying on top of me wrestling with each other.  

Next job was burning up the last of Mom’s Bradford pear tree which she lost the morning of our tornadoes.  She called me at 5 AM while we were in a series of tornado warning that she had lost it.  I told her that’s what they do that in a big wind.  I had re-injured my knee, so I sat on my tractor seat watching the fire and listening to the woodpeckers, doves and another bird I didn’t recognize.   Occasionally I would re-stack the stack with the loader and get the fire started again.  Once during a quiet moment I started to doze off until I got popped between the eyes with a cicada that decided to hang from my glasses.  Four more weeks of these annoying critters. If you don’t have them yet, you will as they are slowing hatching northward. Levi has gotten so fat off from eating them, that I’ve had to cut his food back.   The last of my iris have bloomed, and my Japanese iris, daylilies and oriental lilies have started.  I just love this time of the year, but I could do without the locusts.

Heirloom Tomatoes: Are They Really Heirloom?


Let’s be clear. I love heirloom tomatoes.

 I may raise the hackles of some heirloom seed purveyors by telling you that there is a great deal of misrepresentation out there in the heirloom tomato world. Much of it is not on purpose.

 Not every variety called an heirloom tomato is an heirloom tomato. Many varieties featured in seed catalogs are actually new intentional creations or chance hybridizations that have been selected and stabilized. They are not old—they are not heirlooms. Meaning that they have not been handed down for generations, nor do they have some historic association. 

 Some catalogs are more revealing than others about the history of the variety, and often they don’t know much about the origination of the seed themselves.  As heirloom tomatoes have become increasing popular many avid gardeners and seed savers have been playing with crosses to create new varieties and some claim them to be chance discoveries from King Tut’s Tomb, to Grandma’s Tilly’s garden. Sometimes people simply don’t remember where they got  variety and give it their own name.  In some cases names have been purposely changed by individual or companies to make you think its really an heirloom or to come up with a more marketable name.  A legitimate heirloom may have been saved independently in five different locations and ends up with five different names. So we have deception, memory loss, history loss, and renaming as factors to add confusion to the understanding of what is an authentic heirloom

Most people could care less about this. Nor do they need to care. It is nice to know what you are talking about and not promote inaccurate information, yet for the average gardener, taste and looks are at the top of the list. Dedicated seed savers and food historians may be prepared to exchange  blows over this topic

What is an heirloom?  Right away you are in somewhat ill-defined territory. There is not an official registry as with canine breeds for  what constitutes an “official” heirloom.

Traditionally an heirloom has been handed down in a family or community for two or three generations or more. The seed may have originated in a catalog, or may predate the advent of seed catalogs in the early 19th century. A variety could have for example been brought to Spain from Mexico by the Spanish, traveled through Europe, selected and reselected over the years and brought to the United States by an Italian immigrant 200 years later. An heirloom should predate the widespread advent of hybrid tomatoes in the middle of the 20th century, making a general definition of an heirloom tomato a variety that is older than 60 years at this point.

This is a moving target because we have to keep backdating the definition. Now if someone during the last thirty years created an heirloom type tomato as for example Tom Wagner did with his famous Green Zebra tomato, in another thirty years would that then be an heirloom?  Good question.  In the example of Green Zebra most people assume it is an heirloom because it looks like a heirloom. Even Scientific American got that  wrong.

There are a host of true heirlooms out there, as well as varieties I term historic. Historic varieties are those for which we generally have a written documentation whether from a seed trial, seed catalog, diary, gardening manual etc.

 When you look at some seed catalogs, or for example the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook, the list of [heirloom] tomatoes can be voluminous. Heirloom tomatoes come in a very wide array of sizes, shapes, and colors.  If you really want a true heirloom tomato read the descriptions carefully, and hope they are honest. If you are growing for a history museum make sure you do your research. If you just want a different looking and [hopefully] good tasting tomato then go ahead, buy what looks good and have fun.

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/Kelly Cline 

Lawrence Davis-Hollanderis an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal ofDandelionGardening ArtsHe’s an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

Published on Mar 11, 2011

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