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posted: 8/21/2012 2:30 PM

Be thankful for farmers — and tomatoes

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Earlier this summer I mentioned that our summer vacation plans included the Mitchell family reunion in July and a class reunion in August.

Both getaways took us to the Hoosier State. Both reunions now rank as wonderful experiences that brought home again many memories of lasting relationships with family and friends.

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Along the way, the dry landscape reminded me of an important expression passed along to me years ago when I helped the Wheatland Plowing Match Association with its newsletter. Simply put, "No farmers, no food."

If you've hit the Midwest highways recently, you've seen how this year's drought has dwarfed crops in the fields throughout the Corn Belt.

Close to home, if you've ventured to the Garden Plots along West Street, where tomatoes appear to be a most bountiful crop, you can strike up a conversation with any number of gardeners who know about the dreaded blossom-end rot that's damaged some of the production during this stressful dry, hot summer.

A year ago, our backyard tomato crop was slow to mature in the cool summer. In order to enjoy the fruits of our labor, we fried green tomatoes and baked green tomato pie well into mid-August when the tomatoes finally began to ripen on the vine.

By contrast, this year our tomatoes began ripening in early July, requiring daily picking.

A large bowl of diced tomatoes, red onions and fresh mozzarella cheese marinated in balsamic vinegar and a little olive oil has provided a nutritious topping for omelettes, tomato pie, French toast tips and hamburgers.

Earlier this month, while headed toward Muncie along Indiana State Road 28, we approached the big distribution center for the Red Gold Company in Orestes, also the location of one of three manufacturing and canning facilities for tomato products.

The family-owned business based "in the heart of tomato country" dates back to 1942. I wondered how the summer heat has impacted their business.

As a child, I recall my mother's pantry filled with the company's canned brands of whole tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste -- you get the picture.

And, back then, our family-favorite ketchup was Heinz.

About six years ago, while having lunch with Shirley Pace (a former Daily Herald Naperville columnist) at Your Neighbors, the bar and grill in Hobson West Commons near the Department of Motor Vehicles, I discovered a bottle of Red Gold ketchup right there on the table.

Though familiar with the Indiana brand my entire life, I didn't know they produced ketchup. That day I squeezed the best match for any ketchup I've ever enjoyed on my burger.

Soon after, I found the tasty ketchup on a bottom shelf at Casey's Foods, just across the aisle from the Gourmet Deli Department.

Getting back to fresh tomatoes, according to our trusted World Book Encyclopedia, botanists classify the round smooth tomato, together with its seeds, as a fruit. Much like a grape, it grows on a vine.

If you search online for a second opinion, you'll discover that U.S. tariff laws enacted in 1893 consider the tomato to be a vegetable. A Supreme Court ruling defined produce by its use and not its scientific classification. Certainly from its use as the centerpiece in cooking and a culinary point of view, a tomato pairs better as a vegetable.

The debate regarding whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable likely won't end anytime this growing season.

Still, be mindful that tomatoes, with more than 4,000 varieties, are high in vitamins A and C. They're as nutritious cooked or baked as they are when eaten raw. And the tomato is perhaps the most plentiful home-grown plant.

While our world continues to celebrate 17 days of the great achievements and dedication of roughly 10,500 athletes from 204 countries who participated in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, I'd also like to give a big hand to the sweat equity of family farmers.

And in the words of Thomas Jefferson, "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."

For one, you could say tomato.

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