On the Side | They don't travel, but you should

Posted: July 26, 2007

COLUMBIA, Pa. - They call them "Boro tomatoes," and the woman at the big farm stand on Route 462 near here said that's all people seem to have on their minds when they pull up: "Do you have the Boro tomatoes?"

Boro tomatoes, if you haven't had the pleasure, take their name from little Washington Boro, which climbs up the east bank of the Susquehanna, just south of Columbia, seven miles southwest of Lancaster.

And last week, though the news didn't travel far, it celebrated its signature crop with a festival that has been put on by the fire department for half a century.

Once upon a time, before the tomato world got so messed up, Boro tomatoes were legendary, trucked in the early season - before anyone else had ripe tomatoes - as far as Altoona and Harrisburg, and beyond: There were sightings in Pittsburgh and even the coal country upstate.

They don't have the quirky personality of some heirloom varieties, all stripes and bulging cheeks. They look suspiciously like those cluster tomatoes from Holland, in fact.

But I took a bag home and sliced one down, and excuse me, I need to compose myself a moment, it was the tenderest, fruitiest, sweetest tomato I've had in, well, I forget when.

The skin is onion-skin thin. The meat is a tender, lush gel. The acid is low. The flavor - enhanced with just a shake of salt - is archetypically pre-hardball tomato, preceded by a fresh, clean tomato scent.

They are softies, however, and do not transport well.

Nor do they hold up in a wet season, tending to sag.

Nor do they last long in a produce bin, or on your windowsill.

These are the three strikes that clipped the wings of the Boro tomato, which is the old Jetstar hybrid (and on occasion the slightly longer-lived but lower-flavored Sunbreak).

Amos "Steve" Funk can tell you all about it. The Jetstar was his meal ticket - and the Boro's meal ticket as far back as the 1930s. There were a quarter of a million plants in the ground then, given a natural head start on the season because of the Boro's optimal soil (it is said that Jetstars grown outside the Boro just don't taste right) and the warming breath of the Susquehanna at night, keeping stunting chills at bay.

I called Funk at the Tomato Barn in Washington Boro after my encounter with the farm stand's Jetstar, which he supplies. (That's one of a handful of local places to get his tomatoes beyond his own barn on winding Route 999.)

His story is the story of the decline and fall of the tasty, vine-ripened tomato: From the '30s until 1970, Washington Boro was going like gangbusters, in part because of the Jetstar's ability to jump the season. But it was labor-intensive, and as off-farm jobs siphoned away workers, the town co-op disbanded. The Funk family picked up the business, wholesaling to a regional supermarket chain for 20 years until the fateful wet season when Funk's contract was suspended with a curt Friday-afternoon phone call after delivery of a particularly soft batch: "They shut me down completely."

The Jetstar had been pronounced unviable for the supermarket trade. Other varieties stayed nice and firm and red on the shelf, cosmetics having trumped flavor.

The Leola Produce Auction offered no relief. When Funk took his crates over, he watched firmer tomatoes go for $25 a case. When the auctioneer came to the Jetstars, he warned buyers: "They're soft, so bid accordingly." He got $5 a case.

That was nearly 20 years ago.

Funk asked God for some guidance. And that guidance seemed to indicate that he should unfold a card table and put it beside his tomato barn on rural Route 999, where in the early 1990s he was raking in $50 a day, maybe.

The Jetstar might not have been built for distance, but its flavor was still deeply imbedded in the local taste buds. So along with Benny Duke, who has about 1,000 plants, Funk has come back from the dead: He has 11,000 plants, and by getting his seed in even earlier and his plants out in the field by March, he can get a crop as early as June 4, a month before the Boro's traditional July 4 starting gun.

He's up to selling 50 to 75 cases a day now, some to customers who traipse out from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and, yes, one who comes from New Jersey.

So while the Jetstar may not travel well, it does get out of the Boro on occasion, reminding you that eating local can be a hard-won treat.

If you're not, that is, a local.


The Tomato Barn

65 Penn St. (Route 999), Washington Boro, Pa.

717-684-2597

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. View his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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