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5 Star Stories: The secret behind Ripley, Tennessee’s coveted tomatoes

Published: Jul. 28, 2021 at 10:01 PM CDT
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RIPLEY, Tenn. (WMC) - Ripley, Tennessee tomatoes are so delicious, local singer Joe Eskridge wrote a love song about them.

“I told her you’re in the land of the Ripley tomato,” Eskridge sings from the stage of the 37th annual Lauderdale County Tomato Festival.

Every word in his song describes why Ripley tomatoes are so delectably different.

“These very ripe, here, homegrown Ripley tomatoes. Hallelujah,” he belts out.

Ripley tomatoes are so magical, they even have mascots. Baby Heirloom and Tommy Tomato dress in tomato suits and green tights to greet the crowd each year. From city mayors, to county, state and federal legislators, dignitaries far and wide attended this year’s annual festival to celebrate the red gold.

The USDA counts some 25,000 different tomato varieties, with Tennessee tomatoes pouring $54 million into the annual state economy.

Lauderdale County Chamber of Commerce President Susan Worlds says celebrating the harvest brings the community together.

“They ship all over the world,” she said. “Our tomatoes are special. People come from all over, as far away as Alabama.”

All the more reason for the town to make sure the tomato gets its due. The two-day celebration boasts games, a bouncy, petting zoo, vendors, contests and concerts. Worlds says it’s about three things: “Family, country and God.”

JC Dupree, UT Extension Institure of Agriculture director, calls Ripley the epicenter of the West Tennessee tomato band with farms spanning 120 acres across Lauderdale County.

“There are counties that have vegetable crops, but they do not have the concentration of actual acreage of tomatoes like we do here,” he explained.

According to the USDA, Americans eat an average of 30 pounds of tomatoes per person per year. While pizza sauce is the most common way tomatoes are consumed in America, everyone has their own way to eat a Ripley tomato.

“For me, it’s going to be on a hamburger, or you know some type of sandwich,” Dupree philosophized.

Ripley Mayor Craig Fitzhugh said his family eats it best.

“A little salt and pepper on a piece of just plain old bread and throw it in your mouth,” he said.

Four-year-old Baby Heirloom is convinced she knows the ultimate way to eat a Ripley tomato.

“No cut,” she says before taking a big bite out of a whole tomato.

From the stage, Dupree makes the big announcement.

“The tomato Farmer of the Year award. This goes to Joe McNeill,” he announced.

The crowd roars. McNeill owns the Red, Ripe and Rotten Tomato Farm where you go if you want the juiciest, tangiest, most savory, sweet tomatoes in the area.

McNeill brings his daughters on stage to celebrate the moment.

“I’m very grateful for this opportunity. Very grateful for Susan at the chamber. Also, for the patience of my little girls,” he said.

Shortly after accepting the award, McNeill takes Action News 5′s Kontji Anthony for a tour of the farm. He says his daughters know their way around.

“Where we’re standing is the same spot that I was their age, and I was putting paper in baskets. We used to put newspaper in the baskets,” McNeill said.

It’s the same 16 acres where his great grandfather started the family tradition.

“Having tomatoes in this field, my whole childhood was here. My whole life has been here,” McNeill added.

The fourth-generation tomato farmer explains why Ripley tomatoes are so coveted.

“Personally, I think that it has a lot to do with the heat and humidity we have here. I think it has a lot to do with this dirt that we’re standing on. It’s kind of a sandy-type soil,” he adds.

McNeill says climate conditions also allow for a more natural growing process, resulting in a distinct yield.

“A lot of tomato farmers raise tomatoes on black plastic on a plastic bed to keep in the humidity. These tomatoes don’t grow unless the good Lord gives us some water. I think a tomato that’s grown in the dirt and not on plastic tastes different to me,” said McNeill.

Tomatoes from the soil in Lauderdale County appear to have more flesh than seeds and jelly. A hard feat to recreate in someone’s back yard, even if you have Ripley tomato seeds.

“Chances are, if you throw it down in the soil and stomp the seeds in the dirt, it’s going to come up a plant. But without this kind of soil and being the right kind of nutrients,” his daughter Zoey steps in to help her father find the words. “It won’t taste the same,” she smiles. McNeill smiles back. “There you go. Straight from the mouth of an eight-year-old,” he replied.

McNeill yields 260,000 Mountain Fresh and Mountain Spring variety tomatoes annually and in these parts, you’ll hear a variety of ways to say tomato. “Tomayto, tomahto, tomatuh, mater,” chuckled Zoey.

No matter how you say it, the debate whether tomatoes are a fruit or vegetable ends in Ripley.

“That’s always been a questionable debate, but it’s definitely a fruit,” McNeill revealed.

In fact, tomatoes are the Tennessee state fruit. Local growers also revel in the fact they’re contributing to the state’s number one industry, which is agriculture. McNeill describes the flavors that make Ripley tomatoes unique.

“It has more of an acidic taste to me. It can be a good mesh of sweet and sour. Our you know, hold there’s a lot of tomatoes that look beautiful, but they don’t have any taste or the texture. It’s a mealier texture,” he observed.

Tomatoes are harvested in Ripley from spring to frost and the best way to eat a Ripley tomato is to go there yourself and eat it before it’s even refrigerated. With that being said, if you’re passing through Ripley, you’d be remiss if you don’t stop and see what’s growing on.

See a list of where Ripley tomatoes are sold below.

5 Star Stories: The secret behind Ripley, Tennessee’s coveted tomatoes
5 Star Stories: The secret behind Ripley, Tennessee’s coveted tomatoes((Source: Lauderdale County))

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