By Hiroko Sato
PEPPERELL — For Carl Hills, farming season always begins in winter while sitting on a Jamaican beach and flipping through virtual seed catalogues on his laptop computer.
From long and pointed Speckled Roman tomatoes with wild yellow streaks running through the red skins, to lime-sized Green Zebra with watermelon-like patterns, the colors of heirloom tomatoes explode in the catalogue pictures just as they do in summer on the 140-acre Kimball Fruit Farm that Hills owns in Pepperell. Finding new ones to add to the mix is Hill’s winter homework.
When August comes, he walks through his farm to prove his point — the fruits of his and his staff’s labor aren’t just beautiful to look at but also can satisfy hungry Epicureans. And, the proof this year came in the form of a 2.84-pound Aussie tomato.
“It’s definitely a good recognition,” Hills said of the first-place trophy Kimball Fruit Farm won in the Heaviest Tomatoes category in the 2013 Massachusetts Tomato Contest held Monday in Boston.
Farms keep people fed. Kimball Fruit Farm, for one, participates in 13 different farmers markets in Greater Boston.
“It’s my lifestyle,” Hills said of farming.
Kimball Fruit Farm scored some beefy victories again in the annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest, snapping up first place in the Heaviest Tomato as well as in the Slicing Tomato categories. The contest, which featured four categories, including Cherry and Heirloom categories, drew 85 entries from all across the state, according to state Department of Agricultural Resources that hosted the festival. Monday’s contest opened Massachusetts Farmers’ Market Week.
Farmer Dave’s farm from Dracut won third place in the Slicing Tomato category, following Langwater Farm of Easton. Macone Farm of Concord took second in the Heaviest Tomato category with its 2.67-pound Mr. Stripey tomato. HSato 8/21/12 (Note to editor: Mr. Stripey is the name of the variety.)
This year’s victories marked Kimball Fruit Farm’s comeback in the annual festival. While the farm’s store is decked with countless trophies from past contests, it didn’t win any last year.
Hills said he never intentionally tries to grow a large tomato. But with 70 different heirloom varieties growing, some of them turn up “freakishly” big, he said. The Aussie variety that earned him the heaviest tomato prize normally weighs about a pound.
Slicing tomatoes must taste good to win a trophy. Hills said orange tomatoes tend to lack acidity while darker red ones have a balanced taste with both acidity and sweetness. Black Prince, which won him the Slicing Tomato category, has a deep red skin. It tastes sweet but has some smokiness to it, Hills said.
Rhys Gaudet, HSato 8/21/12 (note to editor: Rhys, the spelling is correct) a 14-year-old from Hollis, N.H., who often stops by Kimball Fruit Farm to get tomatoes, said the heirloom varieties sold at the farm store are all sweet.
“It’s almost like candies,” Gaudet said Tuesday, munching on a Speckled Roman tomato he just bought.
Hills credits the rich soil of the farm — where his father Harold used to grow apples — for the many trophies he has won in the contest. Moisture in the air is the biggest threat to tomatoes, as it can spread fungus.
“There are 20 diseases with tomatoes that you have to watch out for,” Hills said.
Located on a hill, Kimball Fruit Farm’s land can retain moisture in the ground, but they are planted in such a way to prevent leaves from touching water on the ground, Hills said.