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The Slocomb tomato: Is it a matter of the soil or the soul?

August 9, 2018

SLOCOMB, Ala. (AP) — Slocomb, Alabama is just a little less than an 10 square-mile stretch of land in the Southeastern part of the state, known throughout the region for its alluring local export: the Slocomb tomato.

Farmers estimate that 100 acres of that land is dedicated solely to the illustrious fruit that has made the town famous.

“It’s not too sweet of a tomato. It’s not too bitter,” Zack Whaley, owner of Zack’s Family Restaurant in nearby Dothan, says of the tomato. “When we don’t have Slocomb tomatoes, you’ll hear it from the customers. They’ll say, ‘Awwwwww ....’” he says, laughing.

But, what makes the Slocomb tomato different from any other tomato you might get in a supermarket?

Many fans of the tomato, and even those involved in the production of the fruit, will tell you the same thing — that there is something special about Slocomb’s soil.

“They say they have more acid in the soil. They say there is more acidity,” says Jane Sawyer. She and her husband run Sawyer’s Produce in Malvern, less than a mile away from Slocomb’s city limit. She says her husband’s parents, Hosea and Trudy Mills, sold tomatoes from their home long before Sawyer’s became a popular retail market and produce supplier for businesses in the area.

One of her best workers, Tom Victor, who calls himself the “mayor” of her market, agrees. Victor, a retired football coach, has been working at local markets since the early 1990s to keep himself busy during the off season. He takes a break from the sweltering summer heat to talk about the town’s prize produce, enjoying a respite of shade underneath a baseball cap with a logo that reads, of course, “Slocomb tomatoes” in a large-lettered font.

“It’s the soil,” Victor says. “Acid in the soil.”

Not everyone buys that, though.

“No. There’s nothing magic in our soil,” says John Aplin, of Aplin Farms, the self-purported longest-running tomato farm in Slocomb.

“It’s not that Slocomb tomatoes are that much better than tomatoes anywhere else,” he says. “Most any tomato is good most anywhere if it’s picked vine-ripe, ready to eat ... or close to ready to eat. Tomatoes you get out the grocery store, most of them have been picked green, shipped, gassed, put on a truck, somewhere between 12 to 20 days.”

Aplin says his grandfather Q.P. Aplin (the initials don’t stand for anything), along with around 20 other farmers started Geneva County Growers, a co-op where the mythical Slocomb tomato story began.

Q.P. raised John’s father Gerald to work on the farm, before Gerald raised up his boys to do the same.

“The day we was born was when we joined the family business.”

John Aplin says, at their peak, Aplin Farms tended to 200 acres of tomatoes, as other families started to pull out of their commitment to the co-op in Slocomb.

“It got to the point that we were the only ones left in the co-op,” he says.

In the 1980s, Aplin says his family made a decision that helped distinguish Slocomb tomatoes from all the other tomatoes on grocery store shelves. The farm transitioned out of exporting green tomatoes that would be distributed to large grocery chains in order to ripen over a long period of time, switching their focus to the sale of high quality, vine-ripe tomatoes to shoppers in Alabama and surrounding states.

“We’re trying to grow a good tomato, where a lot of these other places are just trying to grow (any ol’) tomato that’ll get to the grocery store, and Walmart’ll pay ’em for it,” Aplin says.

“Walmart, Winn Dixie, they don’t care what they’ve got, long as they’ve got a tomato on the shelf that they can sell for .99-cents, or whatever it is. And, they’ve made that statement to us: They don’t care what it tastes like, as long as it looks pretty, as long as somebody’ll buy it.”

Aplin says it’s what people like him, his father Gerald and brother Tommy do to the tomato once it is picked that keeps people raving about Slocomb tomatoes. He details a meticulous scientific process that revolves around cooling a tomato as soon as it it pulled from the field.

“Giving everybody else credit where credit is due, if you go to Sand Mountain, Alabama, and they take the same care of their tomatoes as we do, their tomatoes are gonna taste good. If you go to Ruskin, Florida, and they take the same care, they are gonna taste .... good. They may not be as good as mine, because that’s not what my palate is accustom to. But, they are good, in their own right.”

“If you go out somewhere in Arkansas, they’ve got some tomatoes that all those folks out in Arkansas will say are the best in the world. They taste terrible. But, the folks in Arkansas love it, because that’s what they grew up with. If, I grew up eating possum, I might like that, too,” he jokes.

“We know (our tomatoes) are better. Our customers all know (they are) better. And, y’know, you’ll come in here one day and I’ll sell you some that ain’t that good. Just because it’s a year that tomatoes aren’t that good,” Aplin admits.

Though, he says, this past tomato season won’t fall into that category. In fact, it was one of the best in his recent memory. He credits Mother Nature’s assistance as the greatest factor in the recent tomatoes’ success. Aplin says the dry weather has been a gift for Slocomb farmers.

“I always give the example to everybody: It’s kinda like drinking watered-down tea. Nobody wants watered down tea. Nobody wants watered-down produce. If it’s too wet, you got too much water in your fruit, whether it’s tomatoes, peaches, melons, whatever.”

But, no amount of good fortune from the weather, can keep tomatoes growing all year round in South Alabama. Aplin Farms is currently closed, as they prepare other crops for their next seasons.

Jane Sawyer, who says the tomato accounts for 80-percent of her sales, says she might as well close her doors when she doesn’t have any tomatoes to sell. She admits that she has to outsource tomatoes from other parts of Alabama or Florida when Slocomb tomatoes are out of season.

Zack’s Family Restaurant typically dons the phrase “Fresh Slocomb Tomatoes” on their marquee. But, co-owner Dianne Whaley says she and Zack are forced to take the sign down whenever they are notified by Sawyer that the tomatoes she supplies them aren’t coming from local farmers.

John Aplin says not everyone feels obligated to practice that same brand of honesty.

“There are several folks around the state that call me the ‘Slocomb tomato police,’” he says, laughing.

He earned the moniker for calling out merchants using the “Slocomb tomato” name to describe tomatoes that weren’t actually grown in the area.

“I had a customer who buys tomatoes from me. I went by her place, two years ago, three years ago. And she was one of the guilty ones,” he says.

“She had ‘Slocomb tomatoes’ on her sign, three weeks before tomatoes are even ready.”

“I asked her, ‘Where’d you get Slocomb tomatoes from?’”

“She said, ‘Well, there’s a guy in Lawrence County who said he had Slocomb tomatoes.’”

“I said, ‘Explain to me how in the hell does somebody in Lawrence County have Slocomb tomatoes? Slocomb tomatoes are grown in Slocomb, Alabama!’”

“That’s like me saying I’m growing Chilton County peaches in Geneva County. You can’t do it!”

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