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33rd annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest draws a crowd

Richard Ansara, chef-owner of Tresca, studied the heirloom tomatoes while judging Tuesday at the Massachusetts Tomato Contest.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

It’s rare for Marie Hills to meet a tomato she doesn’t like.

“I’m a tomato addict,” Hills, 58, said. “There’s nothing better than walking up and down the rows in the field and taking a bite out of a tomato that’s warm from the sun.”

As they do every year, Hills and her husband, Carl, owners of Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell, drove into Boston for the Massachusetts Tomato Contest on Tuesday, the 33rd annual edition. Held at the Boston Public Market, this year’s contest drew 59 entries from 12 local farms.

Row upon row of colorful fruit was displayed on three long tables: heirloom tomatoes of all shapes and sizes and varieties, multicolored cherry tomatoes, and field tomatoes in red and purple. Twelve judges wandered around, picking up tomatoes to feel their firmness before tasting.

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“I am in awe of how beautiful they are when they’re cut,” said Robin Lipson, a contest judge and chief of staff for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. “The art of this is stunning.”

Richard Ansara, a judge as well as the chef-owner of Tresca, a restaurant on Hanover Street, considered the heirlooms. He found one tomato that wasn’t much to look at but was bursting with flavor.

“This is the greatest time of year for tomatoes,” Ansara said. “I’m not looking at appearance so much, but size and texture and, once we start eating them, the flavor profile.”

Elynor Walcott, whose family owns the renowned jazz club Wally’s Cafe, was impressed by the look of the crops, but noticed there were far fewer tomatoes in her category.

“I always judge in the field tomatoes category, and I always pick the winner,” Walcott said. “I’m someone who loves tomatoes. Therefore I think I’m a pretty good judge of tomatoes.”

There are an estimated 759 farms across Massachusetts that annually produce more than 7.6 million pounds of tomatoes on 685 acres.

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The contest is sponsored by the New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Association with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and Mass Farmers’ Markets.

It has been a tough harvest for tomato farmers. A cold and rainy spring meant that many tomatoes ripened later than usual. The first batch off the field wasn’t the best. It’s all about timing, Carl Hills, 61, said.

“If this had been held a week later, we would’ve had more tomatoes to choose from,” he said.

On their farm, Carl and Marie Hills tend 150 acres of crops, including corn, carrots, and berries.

But their pride and joy are their award-winning tomatoes. These sweet and acidic fruit fill a shelf in their home with tomato-shaped trophies.

One year, the farm got mentioned on “The Late Show with David Letterman” for growing the largest tomato in the state. To Carl, that was one to cross off the bucket list. He wasn’t on the Letterman set, but for that brief moment his tomato was a star.

“Tomatoes are his life,” Marie Hills said.

“I figure that’s close enough.”

This year the couple entered every category and placed in the top three in three of the four: first place in heirloom tomatoes, second place in cherry tomatoes, and third place in the heaviest tomatoes.

At one point in the afternoon, a group of kids from the East Boston YMCA walked into the room, making faces immediately.

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These were no fans of tomatoes. But after a taste of fresh salsa, those frowns changed.

“I thought they were nasty,” said Zarya Lewis, 9, a rising fourth-grader from East Boston, “because they had a weird taste, but after I tried [the salsa] a second time it tasted better.”

It was a good day for the Hillses and their prized tomatoes.

It’s the one day Marie knows she can tear Carl away from the farm to enjoy the city. And after all is said and done, he buys her lunch.


Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.