Hard work in early days creates a strong market today

Consumers in many parts of Virginia, and especially Hanover County, rave about Hanover-grown tomatoes. They believe they taste better than other tomatoes, but just how did this tomato become so popular for so long?

A little ingenuity or creative marketing in years past may have had something to do with it. The story goes that a clever farmer came up with a unique marketing scheme.

Long-time worker, Rosa, and Robert Dodd are proud of the Hanover-grown tomatoes they offer to customers.

“When I worked at the office there were two men that lived down in the Black Creek area of Hanover County,” says Mike Wiblin, a former director of the Hanover County office of the Agricultural Soil and Conservation Service (now Farm Service Agency). “Their [last] name was Mantlow. One of them was Douglas, and I think the other was Harold. This was back in the late ’40s, early ’50s. They figured out some way – accidentally now – that they could cut a plant off at the ground at the time it was starting to ripen, and these tomatoes would ripen almost within 24 hours.

“So, they decided they would take a core knife, insert it in the ground and clip the roots off that plant,” Wiblin continues, “and in the next two days all those tomatoes were red, or pink, or starting to ripen; whereas the plant over here growing with its roots still intact was green.”

Proud of their accomplishment, the brothers hauled these tomatoes by pickup to the 17th Street Market in downtown Richmond, Va. “They would show up down at the market with these tomatoes before anybody in the area were getting ripe tomatoes, 10 days ahead of everybody else,” Wiblin explains, “and they’re getting this exorbitant price for these tomatoes. People would say, ‘Oh my God, here comes them Mantlow brothers with them Hanover tomatoes.’ I don’t think it was ever anything about them having special flavoring. I mean you’d talk with people in King William, Henrico, and counties all around us and in Caroline and they’d say our tomatoes are just as good as those down in Caroline or Henrico. But you don’t have the reputation somehow. I don’t know if that was true. I did know those Mantlow brothers, and they were never married, wouldn’t share that secret with anybody until their 80s. One of them had already died; the other one was sharing it with somebody how they actually started the Hanover tomato. It’s perfectly within reason that they did do something like that.”

Carrying on the tradition

The popularity of Hanover tomatoes eventually led to the creation of the Hanover Tomato Festival, which is held every summer. County farmers would bring in their tomatoes to sell to eager consumers, who also enjoyed the vendors and crafts.

For years, Robert Dodd Jr. has carried on the tradition of growing Hanover tomatoes and supplying enough for the festival. In fact, he says he provides 400 boxes. This grower ships and sells red and yellow Hanover-grown tomatoes up and down the East Coast. Because of the high demand, Dodd says he often turns down markets because he can’t hire enough workers to grow more tomatoes.

The 2012 growing season for Hanover tomatoes has been quite interesting, with hail and windstorms. This stormy weather didn’t stop the farm from producing tasty tomatoes.

When asked what makes the Hanover-grown tomato so desirable, Dodd looks puzzled. “It’s a hard question, but everybody asks that,” he says. “That’s the first thing they want to know – what makes it so good? I don’t know really. It’s just an area that has real sandy soil, and all these tomatoes grow red from the inside out. When they get red, they’re red. It ripens from the inside out.”

Listening to Dodd, who’s in his early 80s, you might think he knows everything there is to know about growing tomatoes. After all, he’s been growing them for nearly 40 years. However, Dodd says that assumption isn’t necessarily true.

When he was a young man just getting started in growing tomatoes, Dodd asked an older grower who had finished the season what they should do for next year. The grower replied, “Whatever you learned last year-son, forget it and start over again,” Dodd recalls.

After the 2012 tomato season, Dodd discovered the truth of those words: that every tomato crop is different. “Yeah, this year, the weather and stuff, it’s been some kind of experience,” he says. “When we first set them in the field, it was hot, then it was cold, then it was hot, then it was cold. The tomato plant didn’t know what it wanted to do. Then we got hail. We’ve had hail here twice, but it didn’t hurt us as bad as it did some of the other farmers.”

Hanover County Extension Agent Jim Schroering estimates that the top five growers suffered a total wipeout due to hail and windstorms.

“I thank the good Lord with what I’ve got,” Dodd says.

Tomatoes stacked in buckets will be loaded into a tractor trailer for distribution in the South.

The season started early for Hanover County tomato growers. Dodd planted his first crop on April 15, his second 30 days later, a third went in after another 30 days, and 90 days from when the first crop went in he planted the final tomato crop of the year.

While it was cold during the first planting, he says that was an important time.

Dodd explains that if the season is satisfactory and the tomatoes can go to market before any others are trucked in, that first crop is where the money is made. Consumers are looking for fresh tomatoes in early spring. With the various start times for the crops, they can enjoy tomatoes up to late fall. He has tomatoes until frost, usually in October, and plants 12 different varieties.

A worker shows how large the tomatoes are from this year’s crop.

Consumer demand

How does he grow tomatoes that everybody wants? Is there a key to growing Hanover tomatoes? “I don’t know if it’s a key or not,” Dodd says, “but it’s a puzzle sometimes. The weather will make it a puzzle a lot of times with what you’ve got to do to try to keep them looking good.”

Despite the hail and windstorms, Dodd says the growing season for tomatoes was good, with plenty of rain. “They’re the biggest I’ve ever had in a long time.”

Dodd waters his tomatoes through drip irrigation. He has an employee who works the irrigation system full time, manning four irrigation pumps. Fertilizer is distributed through the irrigation system. The amount of fertilizer varies by field and is calculated based on soil test results.

Each year, Dodd puts down about 270 rolls of black plastic, with 4,000 feet to a roll. He only plants those tomatoes in Hanover County. “I’ve got land in other counties, but I don’t plant Hanover tomatoes there. Everybody tries to catch me doing it, but I don’t do it,” he says.

The majority of his tomatoes are sold to distributors. Dodd believes the flavor is what keeps customers coming back, and they do come back. “We don’t go to farmers’ markets. We’ve got nearly everything sold before we pick it,” he explains. “The tomatoes speak for themselves.”

Despite his age, Dodd has no plans to get out of the tomato business. “Somebody asked, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I said, well, when they bury me in the dirt. That’s all I can tell you. I’ve been messing with dirt all my life since I was 12 years old.”

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.