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MediaNews/David Brow Kimball Fruit Farm owner Carl Hills with his heavyweight champ, a pineapple tomato that topped the scales at 2.71 pounds at the Massachusetts Tomato Festival in Boston. The farm took home six trophies.
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By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

PEPPERELL — Call him the king of tomatoes.

Dozens of trophies from tomato contests blanketing a shelf at Carl Hills’ farm stand are testament to his skills in growing high-maintenance heirloom varieties, like multicolored “big zebra” and “black plum.” A picture of him and his famous crop in The Sun even got David Letterman talking about it on his show last summer.

Now, Hills has done it again.

His pineapple tomato, a sweet heirloom variety, claimed the title of the heaviest tomato in the Massachusetts Tomato Festival held Monday at Boston’s City Hall Plaza, outweighing the second-place fruit by more than a third of a pound. All in all, Hills’ Kimball Fruit Farm snatched first place in three of four categories, taking six trophies home.

Hills, who has participated in the contest annually, has never won this many titles before.

It’s rare, if ever, to see a grower sweep the top prize in three out of the four categories, said Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agricultural Resources, which hosts the festival.

National Public Radio called to interview him, Hills said. And his friends and customers have been calling him nonstop to congratulate him on his big wins in the state contest, which drew 98 entries by commercial growers.

“It’s pretty good,” Hills said, smiling.

The new celebrity farmer’s heaviest tomato is on display at his store. It weighs 2.71 pounds — about a half-pound more than his “big raspberry” tomato that won the heaviest tomato title at last year’s festival. The same pineapple variety also won Hills the top honor in the heirloom tomato category, with the farm’s Romanesco Pantano taking third place.

In the slicing-tomato category, Kimball Farm’s “pink girl” took first. Kimball Farm’s “finish line” tomato garnered ninth in the category. Kimball Farm’s “brown berry” also ranked fifth in the cherry-tomato category.

For Hills, who grows 83 tomato varieties on his 15-acre farm on Hollis Street, winning the state titles means a chance to increase awareness that tomatoes come in more shapes, colors and tastes than most people could ever imagine.

The heirloom tomatoes Hills grows range from speckled Roman, a hearty paste tomato with a pointed bottom and wavy, golden strikes, to lemony bright-yellow and citrusy beefsteak tomato. Slices of these fruit beautifully complement the culinary artistry that chefs dish out, Hills said.

Hills transformed the former apple orchard into a tomato field many years ago when many farmers were struggling to keep their businesses. Despite the economy, the demand for heirloom tomatoes is growing, Hills said. Kimball Farm ships 2,000 pounds of tomatoes per day to wholesale grocers and high-end restaurants. The business employs 36 people at the height of the season, including field workers and those who handle sales at farmers’ markets in 12 locations.

The key to growing juicy, sweet heirloom tomatoes is to stake every one of the plants to keep them off the ground, he said. That’s because heirloom tomatoes are more susceptible to disease than conventional tomatoes. Tomato plants require a lot of water but their leaves cannot stay wet because moisture increases the growth of spores. The heavy rain in June of 2009 ruined tomato crops across New England, though Hills’ decision to give his plants fungicide spared him devastation. This year’s dry weather has been helpful, he said.

“They like dry and hot as long as their feet get enough water,” Hills said.

Tomatoes also taste better when picked early and ripened indoors. Fruit turns mushy if left on the vines too long, Hills said.