Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tomato hangover: 80 varieties at Rutgers' Snyder Farm

Wait a minute, Bunol, Spain. You may have La Tomatina, but you don't have the Great Tomato Tasting. Both happen on the last Wednesday in August, but we New Jerseyans celebrate our tomatoes by sampling their deliciousness, rather than letting them get overripe and then throwing them at each other in some sort of wacky bacchanalia.

Well, some of us do, anyway. For several years I've been meaning to head to Pittstown, where Rutgers and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension host the annual open house and tomato tasting at the Snyder Farm Research and Extension Farm.

This year I finally made it, and if it's possible to overdose on tomatoes, I think I did.

Before I get into that, however, a few words about the farm itself. Originally, the 390 acre property was owned by Cliff and Melda Snyder, well-known in the community for their embrace of the science of agriculture and the technology that proved to help farmers increase yield. Cliff was the longtime president of the Hunterdon County Board of Agriculture, while Melda served both there and was director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Both welcomed their colleagues to the farm to learn more about advances in agricultural science.

When Melda died in 1988 (Cliff had predeceased her 20 years earlier), she bequeathed the farm to Rutgers, which has transformed it into a research facility to foster sustainable agriculture. In other words, while the farm's staff works to develop crop plants to keep New Jersey farms profitable, there's a strong emphasis on environmental responsibility and educating the public.

The farm itself is a bit off the beaten track -- take Route 78 to Clinton, then some country roads that bring you into Pittstown and beyond, passing a good amount of working acreage along the way. Rather than a broad expanse of one or two crops, the Snyder farm has a wide variety -- corn in one area, small orchards of apples and peaches in another, as well as other crops. It's kind of like a gardening hobbyist's fantasy, except that research scientists are closely controlling and monitoring the conditions.

And then, of course, there are the tomatoes -- about 80 different varieties, served up in bite-sized chunks for sampling. Whether you're a fan of grape tomatoes, beefsteak, plum tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, you name it and it's there. Rather than try to explain, I'll give you a look at just a few of the offerings:

The grape tomatoes were very popular and came in many
different colors.

No, that's not a small watermelon.
It's a grape tomato called Lucky Tiger.

Pear tomatoes. They had red ones, too, but these were more fun.
Imagine the sauce from this one!

The Large Tomato table, where volunteers cored
the fruit before cutting it into sample chunks. 
I lost count of my samples somewhere around 40 and felt a sudden need for something, well, NOT tomato. Fortunately several other tables were offering alternatives, including exactly what I needed: basil. Mixed with small bits of tomato, mozzarella and a dash of olive oil (we're in New Jersey, after all), it was the perfect palate cleanser. But then there were the peaches and the melon and the apples and the honey and even hazelnuts. The only thing missing was blueberries, whose season has already passed. A few bushes were still bearing fruit in the display garden, but I resisted the urge to pluck a couple of berries and run.

Needing a break from noshing on healthy food, I jumped on a hay wagon for a narrated tour of the research fields. A volunteer Rutgers Master Gardener shared insights on the studies being done at the farm: peach trees that grow more vertically to increase the number of trees that can be planted on a tract, the relative effectiveness of various fertilizers on corn (chicken guano seems pretty helpful, whole milk not so much), halting the impact of basil downy mildew on one of my favorite herbs. And in one very special area, researchers are monitoring the progress of their efforts to recreate the Rutgers tomato originally hybridized and introduced by the school in 1934.

As I marveled at the number of apples and peaches hanging tantalizingly from the trees, our guide noted that the farm donates about 30 tons of harvested fruit and vegetables to food banks every year. Some fruit, she admitted, was left beyond the electrified fence to bribe deer to stay out of the farm and away from the plants.

I may have gone for the tomatoes, but I left feeling even prouder of our state's flagship university and its agricultural extension program. The folks at the Snyder farm are living up to the example of the folks who donated the land, finding new and more responsible ways for Garden State farmers to provide us with healthy, abundant produce. And, well, I ate enough fruit and vegetables to make my parents beam with pride.

But I have to admit: on the way home, I stopped for some mutz and focaccia. There's only so much tomato I can eat without bread and cheese.

(Check Rutgers' New Jersey Agricultural Extension Station website for more information on the 2015 event.)

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