You rarely can find nature’s most succulent late-summer treat in the produce sections of supermarkets. True, grocery stores feature piles of round red things labeled “tomatoes.” Many of those should instead read “Frankenmatoes.”
Even in season, they’re often pale and hard, uniform in size and frequently mealy and flavor-free. For this, we can thank plant geneticists who’ve engineered out all the good qualities a gene at a time from one of summer’s most fleeting delights.
Those mutants were bred to redden evenly, ripen slowly and bruise barely as they’re shipped across the country. But what’s the point if they’re not worth eating?
Fortunately, we’ve reached the in-season moment when we need not ponder that outrage. Because, right now, local fruit and vegetable stands are swamped with real McCoys. Last week, I visited five in Roanoke and Roanoke County.
The first was Cooper’s Produce, a humble five-tent operation on Brambleton Avenue that’s taken over a big share of the parking lot at HomeTrust Bank (next to The Coffee Pot).
Coy Cooper, a Franklin County resident, whose previous careers included textiles, window manufacturing, landscaping and car sales, started the stand a few years ago in a gravel lot across Brambleton. Now he has a dozen or more tables featuring most of the fresh produce that you might expect and cheese, some breads and honey. His uncle Mickey Cooper is there too.
This time of year, “our biggest sellers are tomatoes and peaches,” Coy Cooper said.
Two of the tables at Cooper’s are covered with tomatoes of varying varieties and hues that range from light green to deep purple and include pink, yellow and red.
“I call these hillbillies,” he said as he gestured to a traditional red and round ‘mater. He said he gets them from the Snow Creek area of Franklin County. They go for $1.79 a pound, including tax.
The stand, which has no sign, also sells heirloom tomatoes, varieties untouched by hybridization or other kinds of food-science mischief. Coy Cooper said he sources those from a farmer on Bent Mountain.
Last week, he had Cherokee purples and German pinks on hand — for $2.29 per pound. That seems like a bargain compared to heirlooms I’ve seen priced at $3.99 in local supermarkets.
Another stand I visited was the venerable Mike’s Country Market on Brandon Avenue near the Salem city line. It’s been in business since 1982. Owner Paul “Mike” Hodges was unloading crates of tomatoes and corn Thursday morning.
He said he started in the produce business “around age 12 or 13, in Rocky Mount,” raising money for his Little League baseball team. Mike’s used to go through 125 40-pound boxes of tomatoes per week.
But that’s dwindled in recent years. “People’s shopping habits have changed,” Hodges said ruefully. Now he sells four to five boxes per week.
Mike’s is getting $1.99 a pound for fat, juicy red and yellow tomatoes. Hodges said he’s buying them from Franklin County and Hillsville. His sweet corn comes from a farmer in Wytheville (who also grows Mike’s pumpkins).
Some of the stands I visited stretch the term “local” just a bit further. You can find one example on the right side of U.S. 221, as soon as you climb to the top of Bent Mountain.
Bent Mountain Mercantile is owned by Ben Ward, who also operates Bent Mountain Bistro, a popular restaurant just down the road. Ward opened the store, which also sells some prepared foods, in a fruit and vegetable stand that has stood along U.S. 221 for years. His “slicing tomatoes,” the red round variety, are selling for $1.80 a pound and the heirlooms are $3.60.
When I asked the woman at the counter where the tomatoes came from, she said Halifax County, which is about 90 miles away. They were juicy and flavorful.
One thing that distinguishes Bent Mountain Mercantile is, occasionally it offers a selection of gently bruised or overripe tomatoes for half price. Those are a deal if you plan to eat them soon. Thursday, I bought a huge golden heirloom for $1.80 per pound and some red slicing tomatoes for 90 cents per pound.
Fralin’s Produce is a couple miles west of Bent Mountain Mercantile. The venerable stand has been around for 39 years and sells potatoes, peaches, corn, peppers, squash, cabbage, beans, cantaloupes, watermelons, onions and more. Alan Fralin raises produce on about 15 acres nearby but sells trucked-in fruits and vegetables until his own come in.
He also sells tomatoes, of course. Last week, Fralin’s was offering big red ones and smaller, deeper red Romas. All for $1.29 per pound. The Romas came from the Fralin Farm on Bent Mountain, a clerk told me. The other tomatoes were from Cana, North Carolina, about 120 miles south.
Alan Fralin told me his own slicing tomatoes are just coming in and beginning next week he won’t be trucking them in from elsewhere.
I told him he had the lowest-priced tomatoes of all the stands I’d visited.
“We try to be reasonable on everything,” he said.
One place already selling grown-on-the-spot tomatoes is the Old Poage Farm, which might be the best-kept produce secret in southwest Roanoke County. It’s on the right along Bent Mountain Road, just a few miles west of Brambleton Avenue’s intersection with Electric Road.
Beyond a small sign that promotes cucumbers, squash, cantaloupes and tomatoes, the farm does no advertising. The place is so low-key there’s no human manning the stand.
Poage’s Farm sells its fruits and vegetables on the honor system (cash and checks only) from one bay of a two-car garage behind the old farmhouse. You weigh the stuff yourself in an ancient hanging scale.
The tomatoes grow in a huge patch just a couple hundred feet away tended by an older guy named Bobby, who plants and picks for farmer David Poage.
When we spoke, Bobby was adamant he didn’t want his last name in the newspaper. He kindly took me on a golf cart tour of the farm’s tomato patch. It sports 2,500 to 3,000 carefully tended plants that Bobby said he planted himself, in stages, between May and July.
“We had tomatoes by July 4,” Bobby said. “We should have them until the first frost.”
Among the varieties are park’s whoppers, mountain fresh, pink girls and cherries, he said. They range in size from smaller than a ping-pong ball to as big as a large closed fist.
The tomatoes look just like the kind that come from your garden — imperfect, a bit on the gnarly side, with cracks and green spots on the top and small bits of dried dirt from splashes during hard rain. Owing to a hail storm last week, a few bear a small black mark or two.
“Homegrown aren’t the same thing you find in Kroger,” Bobby said as the electric cart moved between long rows of staked plants. “Those are greenhouse tomatoes. They raise them all the same size. Out here, they’re all different sizes.”
He’s picking ripe tomatoes daily, and they’re going for $1.75 per pound.
“We’re selling them as fast as they come in,” Bobby said.
It’s no wonder.