A Visit to Rodger Winn’s Tomato Paradise

Written By David S. Shields

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2012

Mention the words heirloom and vegetable in the same sentence, and the average listener will conjure the image of a tomato. The general interest in the heirloom tomato can be attributed to the general distaste for the common grocery store tomato. Thick-walled, mealy, taut-skinned, and reliably roundish, the tomato of commerce appeals to the eye, because of its pronounced red hue particularly in winter months, but not to the tongue. 

Those available in season in the east, come from Florida, Beaufort, S.C., or the eastern shore of Virginia, picked by migrant labor from leased fields doused with insecticide and fertilizer, sheeted in black plastic and harvested on a date determined by labor contract, not the ripeness of the produce. 

The commercial tomato is a product of convenience not an object of gastronomic regard. It is the null backdrop upon which the memory of tomatoes from old family gardens or vacation roadside stands shines. The heirloom tomato, whether a juicy gigantic beefsteak, a sugary black sandwich tomato, a mellow heirloom orange, or an acid and fresh Arkansas Traveler, commands attention for taste, configuration, and color.

All of the heirlooms date from after 1840, that moment when the tomato seized the palate of American diners, and the old landraces attracted the attention of horticulturists and seed brokers. Breeding for new tastes, shapes, and colors became a nationwide agricultural practice. From mid-century on, not a year passed when a new introduction captured the public fancy, making heirloom tomatoes one of the most ample and rich troves of vegetable/fruit creations of the past two centuries.

Many of the star tomatoes of past decades have disappeared entirely, supplanted by “improved” versions, or abandoned because of vulnerabilities to disease or insect depredation. Many varieties that went out of commercial seed production lived on, however, because of the preference of some local grower for its taste, look, or productivity. 

In the past decade a concerted effort by seed savers and botanical antiquarians have collected many of the surviving cultivars. One of the greatest conservators of the heirloom tomato is Rodger Winn of Little Mountain, S.C.

For a little over a decade, Rodger Winn, a retired nuclear engineer, has devoted his farm to the organic cultivation of landrace and heirloom legumes, grains, and vegetables. He became a seedsman performing grow-outs and trials of dozens of varieties for the likes of Baker Seeds, Southern Exposure Seeds, Fedco Seeds, and Heavenly Seeds. Like one of the great experimental planters of the 19th century, Winn grows an extraordinary range of items: honey drip sorghum, the Stone Mountain watermelon, the old long purple eggplant, brown cotton. But the rows of tomato plants and the poles of bean vines are the pride of his plantings.

Every year in late July/early August, during the week when the majority of his tomatoes achieve ripeness, Winn invites “those in the know” to his “Tomato Splat,” a tasting of his heirlooms on the lawns of his house. Long tables festooned with china plates, each filled with a variety of tomato identified by hand-lettered sign, provide the 100 or so guests with an instant education on the range of heirloom types. Visitors bring their own bread and condiments. Rodger Winn supplies the entertainment (a bluegrass band) and the tomatoes. At the invitation of Jim Kibler, scion of an old Carolina planting family whose land is near Whitmire, we attended the 2011 Splat. Protecting sandwiches from free-range chickens, we sampled an extraordinary range of tomatoes— at least 30 of the multitude of offerings. 

Winn’s tomatoes varieties serve a range of functions— some were bred originally as paste tomatoes (The Amish Paste deserves particular notice), some for drying, some for pickling. Of the salad and sandwich tomatoes we consumed, most concurred that the Black Tom and Cherokee Purple had special merit. Steve Kresovich thought the Heirloom Orange particularly piquant.

In order to offer such a panoply of varieties, one must have inspired a great deal of trust and done a fair amount of trading in the community of people that cherish old garden cultivars.

While tomatoes were the reason for coming to Little Mountain, I was particularly interested in seeing Winn’s legendary plantings of field peas and beans. The beds did not disappoint. Besides the southern standbys — Greasy Beans (from the Bradshaw Collection) and the Red Cranberry — there were rare family varieties like the Epting Bean and the Grandma Roberts Purple Pole Bean. The Limas and Sieva beans thrived in the hot muggy clime of the Carolina Piedmont. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen more variety in a single landscape. Because beans and field peas operated in the rotation plantings with the traditional southern landrace grains, ascertaining their qualities and agricultural effects is an important component of the restoration of fields and food in our region.

To view the seeds Rodger Winn makes available annually to the public, consult his website: http://www.rodgersheirlooms.com/index.html