Warren Tomato Festival a great success

Even with some early rain, the 66th Annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival in Warren this weekend proved another resounding success.

Started in 1956 with the aim of bringing attention to the cash growing, packing and shipping of tomatoes, the annual event has become the state’s longest running festival and most popular food celebration in its kind in Arkansas.

During the period of covid concerns the festival was reduced in size but never ceased, maintaining an unbroken run of consecutive years. 2020’s event was a straightforward affair, while 2021 was a close – but not quite – return to normal.

In confirmation of the huge Saturday crowds filling downtown Warren for the blocks surrounding the historic Bradley County Courthouse Square, James Wells, who served as chairman of the Pink Tomato Committee for the 55th, 64th and 65th celebrations, said: “This is our first year to come back 100%. Neither covid, nor Friday’s windstorms, nor Saturday’s rain, nor even record high gasoline prices could curbing the turnout and enthusiasm that we’ve seen here this weekend.”

Next year’s 2023 festival chair, Kenna Sparks, said: “Without all the hard work of all our volunteers, none of this would be possible.”

The 10 a.m. parade moved through 20 blocks of downtown Warren, with spectators standing side by side on both sides of the thoroughfare at every step. Along with the many politicians making their presence known at the head of the procession, the winners of last Saturday’s Pre-Teen, Miss Petite, Miss Teen and Miss Pink Tomato pageant followed shortly after, wearing their well-deserved crowns.

At the end of the impressive spectacle, participants made their way in all directions to the square to witness the highly anticipated annual tomato-eating contest. The first group of contestants was the celebrity category made up of political candidates sitting on the stage in front of several hundred spectators. The top three tomato eaters were state Rep. Jeff Wardlaw with 2.5 pounds consumed in the time limit, followed by last year’s champion, state senator Ben Gilmore, who gobbled up 2.3 pounds of ripe tomatoes, and third runner-up Brian Sanders, husband of Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with 1.5 pounds to his credit.

Wardlaw said he’s won the Tomato Eating Championship 10 of the last 12 years, only losing to Gilmore in 2021 and Sen. Trent Garner a few years ago.

Next, the Jubilation Jazz Band took their turn on the courthouse square stage, entertaining listeners with a wide array of horns. Some 22 members of the ensemble gathered from all over Arkansas to perform a variety of jazz numbers ranging from Dixieland to ragtime.

The annual All-Tomato luncheon, which has been off the list for the past two years, has returned for 2022 with more than 200 guests filling the First Baptist Church Family Life Center. The tomato-themed meal consisted of Bradley County bacon and tomato sandwiches, along with pickled green tomatoes. Guests were also treated to free 50th anniversary festival cookbooks. To everyone’s delight, Ethel “Egie” Grace Teague Wilson, who was the very first Miss Pink Tomato in 1956, was in attendance.

There was something for the enrichment of each member of the family all day Saturday. Additional activities included a quilt show from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., a vintage car show at Warren City Park, the Little Miss Pink Tomato beauty contest starting at 2:30 p.m., a nationally sanctioned steak kitchen on Main Street, lots of food vendors, the Johnson Brothers Carnival which opened in the evening, and a huge selection of arts and crafts all day until 6 p.m.

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday night, Nashville country artist Mary Heather Hickman took to the main stage. A few of his most popular songs include “Ouachita River”, https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/jun/12/warren-tomato-festival-a-big-hit/”Baptist Parking Lot” and “Come on, Cowboys.”

Highlighting the fun weekend, David Lee Murphy wrapped up the night, bringing his country flavor to the stage with well-known radio hits like “Dust on the Bottle” and “Party Crowd.”

After her 90-minute performance, a grand finale fireworks display at 10 p.m. was scheduled, concluding the 66th Pink Tomato Festival.

Participants wear native masks and dresses during the festival parade. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)
Photo People dodge raindrops as the Pink Tomato Festival parade begins. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

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