Celebration of farmers and food at ninth annual Tasty Tomato Festival


Allen Wallace and Connelly-Anne Ragley photos.

Columbia’s City Roots urban farm became a paradise for fruit and vegetable lovers Saturday, since the edible item that was the center of attention (and of the menu) fits both categories.

The 9th annual Tasty Tomato Festival brought a big crowd of fans of the fruit/vegetable, also known as the love apple, out to devour a significant portion of the 22-24 pounds of tomatoes consumed by the average American each year.

“It’s a celebration of local farmers and local food, and obviously tomato season. We get some good music and good vendors and have a good time,” said Jon Sears, board chair for Sustainable Midlands, which hosts the festival each year.

Sustainable Midlands is a non-profit that works to encourage responsible growth, ensure access to local foods and establish a healthy environment for all Midlands communities, and the Tasty Tomato Festival is its signature fundraising event. “This really helps fund the entire organization,” Sears said.

Local businesses offered food and drinks (with, of course, many tomato-based options) Saturday for those attending to enjoy while listening to live music and free tastings of locally grown heirloom tomatoes of many varieties provided by Senn Brothers, with an array of oil accompaniments from The Crescent Olive.

Volunteer organizers Amy Beth Franks and Lauren Smith brought this year’s festival together with new additions including the “Maters Matter” interactive and educational stage, where local vegetable growers and other experts delivered lectures on all things tomato throughout the day.

Another debut was the Kids Mindful Yoga offering in the Palmetto Pride Tiny Tomatoes children area, with instructors from Fit Columbia demonstrating the fundamentals of mindfulness in body, breath, mind and life, with a kid-friendly approach.

Volunteers from Sustainable Midlands as well as local nonprofits like Happy Wheels worked before, during and after the festival to make the day a special one for all. Cola Town Bike Collective offered free bike valet during the festival, and any patron using the valet received $5 off admission.
A panel of judges faced the difficult task of tasting dozens of tomatoes to select the best of those entered in this year’s competition.

Saturday’s biggest winner was Connelly-Anne Ragley. The Columbia gardener took home the prizes for Best Big Yellow, Best Purple and Best Small Other.
Ragley said she grew up around gardens thanks to her grandparents, and began growing tomatoes about eight years ago. Her backyard garden at her family home near Five Points now produces 24 heirloom varieties.

“Heirlooms are very challenging to grow, and I enjoy the challenge. The prettier the better, the more challenging the better,” Ragley said. “My husband and my two-year-old are in charge of watering operations.”
Ashley Rich won prizes for Best Unusual and Best Small Red, and her daughter, Izzy Rich, took first place in the Best Tomato Grown by a Child category.

Derek Cothran won Best Big Red, and Rosewood Public Orchard was the judges’ choice for Best Public Garden.

More information on Sustainable Midlands is available at the organization’s website.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Columbia, Richland County