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Lindenhurst man wins 2014 Newsday Tomato Challenge

Gary Schaffer of Lindenhurst is congratulated by Newsday

Gary Schaffer of Lindenhurst is congratulated by Newsday garden columnist Jessica Damiano after winning the 2014 Great Long Island Tomato Challenge on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014. Schaffer's prize-winning fruit was a 5-pound, 4-ounce Rhode Island Giant. Credit: Daniel Brennan

They came with baskets and buckets, dishtowels and boxes. They carried tomatoes big and small, ugly and misshapen, red and green. But I don’t think any of them was prepared for what they were about to witness.

One by one, they approached the scale, hope in their eyes. On it, they placed homegrown tomatoes — the bounty from a cool summer’s worth of blood, sweat, tears and money. Weights were recorded, admiration extended and congratulations offered.

And then it was Gary Schaffer’s turn.

As the retiree from Lindenhurst approached the podium, time stood still for a few seconds. Bellowing “whoa” and muttering other exclamations of incredulity in unison, nearly 100 Long Islanders attending the eighth annual Great Long Island Tomato Challenge on Friday night watched as Schaffer placed his 5-pound, 4-ounce Rhode Island Giant tomato on the scale.

Weighing more than some newborns, the behemoth fruit was grown with homemade compost, Miracle-Gro and “lots of luck,” Schaffer, 69, said.

The win was historical on two levels: As the 2012 winner of the challenge (with a 3-pound, 6-ounce), Schaffer is the first person to have won the challenge twice. What’s more, his entry is the largest ever to be recorded at the annual contest and also on Long Island, as far as I know.

Schaffer grew dozens of tomato plants this year, but groomed nine of them specifically to be contenders. The winning tomato can trace its roots, so to speak, to the 2012 champ, as Schaffer has been saving seeds from generation to generation. He started them indoors in his Florida room and on his dining room table over the winter, then transplanted them into larger containers before moving them into a small hot house in his basement.  

Schaffer transplanted his seedlings outdoors during the third week of May, and fastidiously pinched the bottom leaves off all the plants until they reached 2 feet tall “so nothing touches the ground.” It helps prevent disease, he explained.

His secret weapons? During the growing season, “I mulch the plants with my lawn grass, give them a little taste of Epsom salts, a shot of Miracle-Gro at half-strength, and homemade compost, which I make with coffee grounds, banana peels and anything organic that’s laying around.” He also crumbles up egg shells and adds them to planting holes “for calcium,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that Schaffer grew up on a 320-acre diversified farm in North Dakota, and has been gardening in his Long Island backyard for 40 years. “This is my therapy,” he said. “I’ll keep doing it as long as my back lets me.”

Coming in second place was the 2013 winner, William Bouziotis of Northport, with an impressive 3-pound, 10-ounce Big Zac, grown with “lots of good growing media, elbow grease, and a little money and some luck,” he said.

Fernando Ferreira of Lake Ronkonkoma came in third with a 2-pound, 15-ounce beefsteak. His daily conversations with his tomatoes surely paid off.

Huntington’s Kyle Freedman-Avena, a 13-year-old veteran of the challenge who also talks to his plants, mostly chanting, “grow, baby, grow,” and treats them to sugar water, took the top honor in the ages 13-17 category with a 1-pound, 4.7-ounce beefsteak. 

Ryan Fonseca of Lake Ronkonkoma, who at the tender age of 7 grew his beefsteak from seed, won the ages 7-12 category with a 2-pound, 11.5-ounce beauty.

And Carmine Gerbino’s impressive 3-pound, 2-ounce tomato took top prize in the ages 6 and under category. The 6-year-old East Northport second-grader also started his plants from seed.

Ten growers vied for the ugly tomato title, but Levittown’s Harriet Levy’s “five-in-one” supersteak tomato caught the most attention.

And this year’s smallest tomato was entered by the smallest attendee: 4-month-old Cayden Bosinius of Commack was carried to the podium, where his tiny entry measured just 8 points on the pica ruler. Alas, by the time his name was announced, Cayden had already headed home to bed. His aunt, Jillian Bosinius, accepted the prize on his behalf.

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