As of this week, there are exactly four months until the delicious tradition returns to East Tennessee with the annual Grainger County Tomato Festival in July. The event draws thousands of people to Rutledge every summer.
Farmers typically start planting in mid-to-late April and cross their fingers that the unpredictable spring weather does not take a bite out of their precious crop. The annual gamble with the weather was extremely evident Monday as Steve Longmire and his four-year-old daughter Elizabeth braved the springtime snow at their Grainger County farm.
"I thought it was supposed to be spring!" said Elizabeth as Longmire carried her outside in the gusty conditions Monday afternoon.
Longmire has increasingly picked a winner in the winter by betting on the house.
"We have 24 greenhouses and about 17 of them are for picking tomatoes. The others are plants for later," said Longmire. "These seeds were sewn the first part of November. It just takes them a long time to come in and start picking in the winter time. But once we get going it accumulates to a bunch of our business. The greenhouse stuff is probably 25 to 30 percent I imagine of our business."
The exceptionally warm December this year sped up the growing process in the greenhouses. Longmire said harvest for the winter greenhouse crop normally begins at the beginning of April, but he is already selling loads of the ripe tomatoes to Wal-Mart and individual buyers.
Protecting the crop from whatever weather Mother Nature deals costs Longmire plenty of green.
"The propane is very expensive. Propane hit us hard this year. That is how we heat the greenhouses in the winter," said Longmire. "The greenhouse business was really booming and growing everywhere in Grainger County until about five years ago when the price of propane really took a jump. It costs us more than double to grow tomatoes in the greenhouse compared to out in the fields."
The winter tomato crop also requires paying to bring in some extra winged workers.
"You see that box in the middle of the greenhouse. It is full of bumble bees. There he goes, looking for pollen. We need the bees to pollinate the tomatoes."
The increased cost reduces the risk and generally makes it a safe bet that Longmire will hit the jackpot with his winter crop.
"People have been eating tomatoes during the winter that just are not as good. They are ready for some good Grainger County tomatoes and the ones grown in the house are delicious. I think some folks have bad experiences with other types of greenhouse tomatoes. But with these, they just need to try them and I'm sure they'll be satisfied with the flavor. These are Grainger County tomatoes."