Heirloom Tomatoes Focus of Nebraska Festival

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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.