BOSTON >> The tomatoes were sliced with great care. First in half, then one half was itself halved, and then one quarter was cut into bite-sized hunks.
As the scent of fresh tomato filled the Boston Public Market on Wednesday, judges prepared to sample the various shapes, sizes and colors of tomato in an effort to pick the cream of the crop.
Commercial farmers from around the state entered the best of their crop into the 32nd annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest and the judges carefully sampled each one to select the best based on flavor, firmness and slicing quality, exterior color and shape in four categories: slicing, cherry, heirloom and weight. Wednesday's contest featured 88 entries from 16 farms around the state.
Twenty judges — including Sen. Joseph Boncore, Assistant Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Daniel Sieger, chef and cookbook author Beth Gurney, Chop Chop Magazine editor Sally Sampson and chef Yassamin Healey — compared notes and tallied their scores to select the top tomatoes.
In the slicing category, Ward's Berry Farm in Sharon won the grand prize with its black velvet tomatoes. The sungold cherry tomatoes from Langwater Farm in North Easton claimed the top spot in their category and the yellow brandywines from MacArthur Farm in Holliston were selected as the best in the heirloom division.
The heaviest tomato was a Mexico tomato grown at Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell — tipping the scales at 2.68 pounds, closer to the average weight of a pineapple than of a tomato.
Judge Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises for the University of Massachusetts, said he was paying close attention to the flavor of the cherry tomatoes he sampled because the students who eat at the dining halls he oversees can be picky.
"Students now want more bold flavors. They want it to taste like a real tomato, not have bland tomato flavor," he said. "And students always want us to support our farmers and buy locally. It's a good way to give back to the community, and it's more fresh and nutritious."
For farmers and state agriculture officials, the tomato contest was a chance to showcase one of the state's most profitable crops and the Bay State's agricultural businesses.
"We want people to remember that we have a thriving agricultural economy in Massachusetts," Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux said. "We have 7,700 farms doing about a half a billion dollars in business every year, protecting and preserving about half a million acres of land and though we're not a giant commodity state, we're one of the leading states in the country relative to direct farm to consumer sales."
More than 750 farms in Massachusetts produce roughly 9.2 million pounds of tomatoes each year — roughly equal to the weight of 31 adult blue whales, the largest animal known to live on Earth. The 685 acres of tomato plants harvested in the state annually yield $12.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lebeaux said it is especially important this year, as a widespread and ongoing drought has deprived much of the state of the rainfall that farmers depend on, to show consumers that the state's farmers are growing quality produce despite the drought.
"If you go to a farmer's market now or a farm stand, you're going to see a lot of great produce," Lebeaux said. "Folks really should be encouraged to come out and purchase from their local farmers because, honestly, this perception that perhaps they don't have adequate product is another damaging blow to" farmers.
Plus, the hot weather that has prevailed across the state for much of the summer is actually favorable for tomato growing, he said.
"It's been a great year for growing tomatoes. All this hot, sunny weather is exactly what tomatoes like as long as they're adequately irrigated," Lebeaux said. "Granted, not every farmer has had the good fortune to have adequate water this year so some folks' crops have suffered."
Count Lebeaux, who said he loves tomatoes, among those whose crops have suffered this year, but not because of the drought.
"I've done a little extra business this year at my local farm stand because a marauding band of woodchucks wiped out my personal supply," he said. "My garden didn't do so well this year, but I had a caprese salad for dinner last night with local tomatoes."