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COVID-19 cancels Grainger County Tomato Festival; farmers remain optimistic

The popular tomato festival held at the end of July is canned, but farmers remain optimistic about their crop and the demand for local produce.

RUTLEDGE, Tenn. — The annual Grainger County Tomato Festival is the latest event to die on the vine due to safety concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers of the popular event held in Rutledge in late-July said they communicated extensively with the state before deciding the can the event.

"We usually have between 15,000 and 20,000 people here for that weekend. And that's one of the reasons the governor's [administration], they say no. It is not in line with the phase of reopening we are in," said Kathie Self, chairman of the Grainger County Tomato Festival.

While the current conditions are not ripe for a festival, farmers are optimistic about the outlook for this year's crop.

Credit: WBIR
Grainger County Tomatoes at Stratton Farms near Rutledge.

Luke Stratton, owner and operator of Stratton Farms, said it has been too early to tell what impact the pandemic will have on his business.  He is just now beginning to harvest greenhouse tomatoes and the plants in the field will not be harvested until early-July.

"At the present time, it's hard to tell how this virus has affected the local farming. But there is a lot of interest in fresh local produce.  Some of the grocery stores I sell tomatoes to have said their sales of in the produce section are up anywhere from 30 to 70 percent, depending on the store," said Stratton.

Stratton said he has received several calls from grocers eager to know when his tomatoes will be ready to sell.

Credit: WBIR
Tomato plants in the fields at Stratton Farms in Grainger County

"There have been a lot of people calling to buy locally grown produce, more so this particular year than even in the past. And, of course, we're very hopeful that it continues with the tomatoes and the squashes and cucumbers and everything that's grown locally in Grainger County," said Stratton.

As for the tomato festival, it serves a purpose beyond a fun event that promotes the region and brand of tomatoes. It is also when Stratton and other farmers are able to sell all the tomatoes that don't win a beauty contest.

"Grocery stores have a product they want without any imperfections and a certain size. There are plenty of tomatoes that taste just as good with imperfections.  The festival is the canning season, where it does not matter what the tomato looks like. And a lot of the local farmers rely on the tomato festival to sell their excess products," said Stratton.

The festival's organizer said it will return in 2021. Some merchandise, including the unique 2020 tomato knives, will be available to buy on the festival's website.

Credit: WBIR
Luke Stratton looks at some of the Grainger County tomatoes in his greenhouse at Stratton Farms near Rutledge.

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