Triumph and tragedy with tomatoes

This article appeared in the MetroWest Daily News on Aug. 21

When the winter’s relentless snow crushed Peter MacArthur’s greenhouse, the one his sons helped him build and where he grew his prized tomatoes, MacArthur said he felt like a part of him was gone.

That’s why victory was extra sweet for MacArthur on Thursday when he took the prize for best tomato in the state. After all that was lost at MacArthur Farm, MacArthur said nabbing the title for best tomato in the state was a fruitful reward for his hard work.

“For us, it was emotional,” MacArthur said as his wife, Helen, manned the counter at their Concord Road produce stand. Next to the stand, MacArthur’s former greenhouse stands broken and bent after the weight of snow this winter ruined it. “My boys built that greenhouse. When it came down, it was like a part of me died. We were shocked (to win) yesterday.”

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Peter MacArthur slices into one of his prize-winning tomatoes on a rainy day at the farm.

MacArthur’s Tomimaru Muchoo variety tomato took first place in the slicing category, which judges tomatoes on their overall quality, at the Massachusetts Tomato Contest at the Boston Public Market, aimed at increasing awareness of locally grown products. Helen MacArthur spotted the winning tomato, as she always does with her keen eye trained in botany. Judges looked at the tomato’s firmness, color, shape, flavor and uniformity when cut open.

The MacArthurs came across the Japanese tomato variety while visiting their sons in California, hopping around to different farmers’ markets. The medium-sized, pink tomatoes are sweet and flavorful, less mealy than other varieties, MacArthur said.

“We found a tomato we really liked, so we decided to grow it,” he said. “Last year, I kind of neglected it. I had so many things on my mind. Out of 120 entries it placed 5th for flavor. This year, I got the seed growing and I took care of it.”

His care and more than 40 years of experience took the tomato to first place of this year’s 92 entries.

MacArthur started in the tomato business when he was a 15-year-old student at the Norfolk Agricultural High School. He got a job at Volante’s Farm in Needham, where Ferdinand Volante coached him in agriculture. Volante’s daughter, Helen, became MacArthur’s prize tomato picker and his wife.

Helen and Peter MacArthur also cultivated winning tomatoes in 2004 and 2008. Over the years, the pair have continued to place in the tomato contest, including last year’s 5th place, and a 3rd place prize this year in addition to the top spot.

Growing the state’s best tomato takes a lot of hard work and years of trial and error, MacArthur said, but he also credited it somewhat to chance.

If he hadn’t been fixing a broken pipe in his home, MacArthur would have been in his greenhouse when it collapsed. If he hadn’t spent so much time clearing out his other greenhouses so they wouldn’t face the same fate, he wouldn’t have planted as late as he did. If he hadn’t planted late, he wouldn’t have avoided the tumultuous spring weather and his crops wouldn’t have been as good.

“It’s taken me a lifetime to learn that, all the secrets,” MacArthur said. “My whole life, there’s always been a tragedy, a hurdle. Someone will always say no. I say yes. A good thing came out of this.”

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