Now in their sixth year of operating the summertime landmark at 65 Penn St. in Washington Boro, Tyler Rohrer and his wife, Jennifer — daughter of original Tomato Barn owner Steve Funk — lead a crew of about 20 workers in planting and tending 12,000 or so tomato plants along with sweet corn, melons, peppers, zucchini, onions, pattypan and regular squash, beets and eggplant. Of course, though, there’s plenty of the Jet Star tomatoes that put Washington Boro on the map.
Those Jet Star tomatoes, juicy and sweet, are typically what you’ll find in tomato sandwiches purchased at the annual Washington Boro Tomato Festival. The two-weekend event kicked off last Saturday and concludes this Saturday (see box for details).
We spoke to Rohrer about growing the veggies. Some answers have been trimmed for length and clarity.
How has this year’s tomato season been?
"So far, the weather’s been exceptional. Mainly, it’s due to March; the ground temperature got warmed up really quick and plants took off, and April and May were really fair. May did get a little cold; I think that’s part of the reason we have a short spell (of Jet Stars) right now.
But overall, it’s been great tomato weather."
What tomato types do you grow other than Jet Stars?
Tomatoes include Pineapple and tangy-sweet Brandy Boy heirlooms; Roma plum, hearty Sunbrites; low-acid yellow tomatoes and a few others with long shelf life that primarily are sold wholesale. The first came off the vine on June 1 this year.
This time of year, with the rush of a crop coming in, do you ever say, “I can’t possibly look at another tomato?”
"No, farming’s a way of life. We just hunker down for the season and make it work. Yeah, I mean, I bag a lot of tomatoes."
How did you get into the business?
"I always enjoyed farming. Me, personally, I like interacting with people, so the retail side of things interested me. It’s seasonal, so it’s long hours but it’s not year-round."
How labor-intensive is it?
"During peak season we’ll have 20 different employees running around. There are six or seven just for the retail side of things, we’ve got three or four in our bakery ... and then we’ve got eight to 10 people out in the field.
There’s a lot of work (involved) in keeping good quality on the shelf so your customers are always happy."
Are more people getting into preserving food, like tomatoes?
"There’s always been those people out there. It seems like the trend is, people want to can more themselves — but the people who actually do it are fewer. There’s always people saying, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that!’ and that’s where it ends.”