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Virginia Couple Cultivates 200 Kinds of Tomatoes

Sandy Hausman/WVTF

Virginia is known for peanuts and tobacco, but in this age of farm to table, another crop is taking center stage – the tomato.

When I reached David Hunsaker by phone, he agreed to meet with me at his Hanover County home but warned he was supposed to be taking it easy.  After weeks of tending his tomato crop, the 66-year-old farmer had suffered heat stroke.  When I arrived he told me, "I’m actually standing with you today with a detached retina from basically losing consciousness in the garden about two weeks ago.  I woke up across two layers of tomatoes.”

Fortunately, he had surgery to repair the retina, while his partner –- Barbara Hollingsworth – kept tabs on the tomatoes.

“I like the green ones," she confessed. "They’re a more mild tomato, but I love them all.”

Gardening comes naturally to the couple.  Hunsaker grew up in a coal mining family that depended on its garden for food, and Hollingsworth helped out on her grandparents’ farm:

“The reward was always succotash," she recalls.  "It was always worth the eight-hour day to have grandma’s succotash at the end of the day, covered in butter."

It’s clear they’re devoted to the crop from its early days in their greenhouse to harvest, but Hunsaker is quick to credit their location for the quality of their product.  He says Hanover County tomatoes are known all over the world.

Credit Sandy Hausman/WVTF
Tomatoes come in many different colors to delight the eyes as well as the tastebuds.

“It’s because of the type of soil we have here," he explains. "The soil is very sandy.  Tomatoes appreciate drainage. They also must have a lot of nutrition.  We have this marvelous red clay as well.”

Most of the tomatoes are descended from plants that grew in the Americas centuries ago.  Hunsaker says they’re more difficult to cultivate than modern hybrids, since they lack disease resistance, but they’ve got plenty of flavor, and Hunsaker touts their colors.

“You know you taste with your eyes, and when you’re seeing a plate of tomatoes that are purple and blue and green and striped, it’s such a thing of beauty.”

Customers who buy from the couple’s business -- Village Garden RVA -- have taken note. So too have insects and other animals, but Hunsaker and Hollingsworth refuse to use chemical sprays.

“We had a huge aphid attack this year," he says.  "Our defense against that is soapy water.”   

Over the years they’ve gained a reputation with local chefs, and from their friendship with the sommelier at Barbourville’s award winning winery and restaurant, Palladio, came the idea to host a series of dinners at various restaurants, pairing tomatoes with local wines.

“We did orange tomatoes with cobia, a green chilled tomato gazpacho," says Hunsaker. "One of the chefs later on is making a tomato upside down cake!” 

The idea is proving popular, with the first few dinners sold out. Of course all good things come to an end, including tomato season, but Hunsaker and Hollingsworth won’t be sitting around. The Village Garden -- also offers peppers.

“We grow over a hundred different types of chilis from a little bit hot to insanely hot.  We have three freezers full right now,” he says. 

Hollingsworth adds that they’ve partnered with local breweries.

“They’ve used our chilis and our pumpkins and our lemongrass in their beers," she says.  " Blackheath Meadery, they made a tomato mead and called it tomeado.”

The enterprise has led some chefs to call Hunsaker “Tomato Dave,” and the two have won a local culinary prize -- the Elby award, named for Richmond chef Paul Elbling, an early champion of farm to table cuisine.  

Style Weekly lists these dinners pairing tomatoes and Barboursville wine:

Midlothian Chef’s Kitchen

Sunday, July 11, 6-8 p.m.
$95 (six courses)

Metzger Bar & Butchery
Wednesday, July 14, 6:30 p.m.
$125 (five courses, gratuity included)

Lillie Pearl
Wednesday, July 21, 6 p.m.
$75 (four courses, bubbly to start)
Guests are asked to purchase gift cards instead of tickets to use at the event. Contact lilliepearlrva@gmail.com to purchase a gift card and be put on the list. 

Friday, July 23
Price and ticket link unavailable at press time.

Monday, July 26, dinner as normal service starting at 5 p.m.  
Price to be determined, seven courses 
Make reservations by calling the restaurant at 804-269-3689 

Lobby Bar, Quirk Hotel Charlottesville 
Wednesday, Aug. 4, 6-9 p.m.
$110 (six courses, includes gratuity and a cocktail)

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief