Maters

I just finished eating the best, juiciest tomato I’ve had this year. It was not the rock-hard, gassed kind raised mostly in a greenhouse. It was soft, perfectly shaped with some of the green vine still attached. Eating a fresh delicious tomato makes me smile and takes me back to my youth. I have extensive experience raising the juicy gems.

Many people loosely use the phrase, that was the happiest day of my life, without giving it a second thought. Looking back at my younger days, this statement applied to friends who got their first bike, BB gun or Barbie doll. Yes, receiving some of those awesome items for the first time were certainly happy moments for me as well, especially the day I received a horse for Christmas. But was this the happiest day of my young life? Not by a long shot!

My dad worked in a bag factory at night. In the daytime, he made extra money by being a truck patch farmer. Excellent at growing anything, he grew beans, peas, corn, okra, watermelons, cantaloupes, and peppers. In the delta lands of southeast Arkansas, the weather during the growing season is extremely hot and steamy, especially as the daylight tarries. In addition, mosquitoes swarm any warm-blooded movement, making a truck patch workers job even more miserable. As a result, Dad wanted me, my sister, and my mom in the field, picking the fresh grown vegetables as soon as the sun peaked over the loblolly pines. This meant waking up at the dreaded crack of dawn, a time a young boy should never have to see! Once we picked the crop, we drove into town and attempted to sell our goods to the lone local grocer. On those days, when the grocer did not buy our produce, Dad and I sat on the town square with our vegetables displayed until someone came along to buy them. It embarrassed me to do this. I always hoped none of my friends would see me.

My dad soon learned there was a better way to make money using his special talent of growing things. A tomato shed had recently been built in our town. This was a place where tomato buyers from throughout the country came to buy tomatoes from local growers. It was quite a remarkable sight. An auctioneer started the bidding on tomatoes displayed in our very own stall. Trucks loaded full of twenty-pound boxes of graded tomatoes, which we called “lugs,” were backed into these stalls, which circled the building. There were usually around eighteen stalls in each shed. As one truck left a stall, another pulled in. The auctioneer circled the building clockwise until they bought all the customers tomatoes. Buyers bid against each other.

“Who’ll give me ten, ten, ten, I got ten, how about ten and a half, gimme ten and a half, ok ten going once, twice, SOLD to the gentleman in green,” the auctioneer said in his singsong voice.

Once a bidder won, the buyer gave us an invoice which we traded for a check once we delivered the promised number of lugs to the buyer’s warehouse, located at the back of the shed. Refrigerated eighteen wheelers, known as reefers, backed to makeshift warehouses, loaded the boxes of tomatoes, and whisked them off to some far away grocery store. 

All of this sounds so simple, right? Well let me tell you what we did to get those tomatoes to the shed. The process started in February when Dad and I built our cold frame. I never fully understood the name cold frame, because there was nothing cold about it. Perhaps it is because it kept the cold out. We used this to grow our small tomato plants, from two inches in height, that we bought from a wholesaler. The cold frame, draped in plastic, kept the frost from killing our infant plants. During the day, we pulled the plastic back, so the sun could shine in. At night, the plastic had to fully cover the plants so they would not freeze.

The infant plants required water and fertilize daily.

Once the plants grew to about a foot tall, and once we passed “the Ides of March,” which is March 15, we believed we were safe from a killing frost. Next, Dad got our horse and use a rusty old side busting plow to till the soil in our designated half acre plot used to grow our tomatoes. As he began “pulling the rows,” as he called it, I walked behind him spreading fertilizer on top of the rows, with a 5-gallon bucket full of fertilizer in one hand and slinging fertilizer with the other. Dad came behind me with a row farrow, covering the fertilizer and breaking the dirt clumps.

Now the real fun began! We dug up the young plants in the cold house using our hands, transporting them to the field. From there, on our hands and knees, we transplanted the tomatoes. Dad cut a stick about eighteen inches wide which we use to know how wide apart to plant our prized products. Using our hands, we dug a hole big enough to ensure we adequately covered the roots, ensuring the plant stems were above ground. Once planted, it was time to stake the plants.

Reusing sticks from last year and a steel mallet that weighed about 5 pounds, we drove the stakes into the ground next to the plant, being careful not to break the roots. As the plants began to grow, we tied the plants to the stakes, using a special technique which separated the plant from the stake, preventing damage to the plant and future tomatoes.

By this time, May arrived and with it came bugs that loved to feast on our prized plants. So, using one of mom’s old stockings, we filled it with a special chemical of dusting powder and dusted each plant. This was effective in keeping the bugs away until it rained, and then this process began again. Of course, no breathing mask was worn.

Next, we pruned each plant, another specialized technique, designed to make the plant grow stronger and thus produce larger tomatoes. Lastly, we pinched off the top of the plant, making the plant grow outwards and not upwards, so the tomatoes would be big and juicy-looking for those tomato buyers to pay top dollar.

While most of my friends were excited for school to let out in late May, for me and my sister, this was just the beginning of our challenging work. The first tomatoes began to get ripe around the first of June. We woke up at six a.m., sleepily and begrudgingly picking tomatoes before the hot and steamy sun took its toll. We wore long sleeves since tomato plants are nasty and green film residue got all over our arms if we didn’t. We continually applied mosquito spray, thanks to the surrounding rice fields full of water, a breeding ground for biters.

Once picked, usually around ten a.m., we graded the tomatoes. This comprised of wiping the dirt and dust off them. Spit seemed to be the best and cheapest cleaning compound. Dad decided if the tomato deserved to be a number one, two, three or cull. We then wrapped them in tissue and placed them in a cardboard box. Once graded, it was finally time to eat lunch. After lunch, we drove to the tomato shed. This could take up to thirty minutes, depending upon which shed was open for the day. Once at the shed, we got in line for our turn on the bidding process. If lucky, we got our turn by six p.m., however, sometimes it was nine p.m. By the time we unloaded our tomatoes, collected our checks, and drove home, it was seven to ten p.m. We cleaned up, went to bed, and started this same process over again the next day. Thankfully, markets were closed on Saturday and Sunday, so we did not have to pick on those days, a reprieve only intensified with three times more ripe tomatoes to pick on Monday.

The markets usually closed for the season by the third week of July. Now our neighbors could come pick as many tomatoes as they wanted, free of charge. We usually used these tomatoes for canning tomato juice. 

Once Dad officially declared the season over, usually the first week of August, my friends and I had the biggest tomato fight war you’ve ever seen. For me, this was a celebration worth receiving a rotten tomato zinger to the face.

Now we pulled all the stakes used to hold the tomato plants. We stacked and stored them out of the weather, for snakes to use as a shelter so they could scare the bejeavers out of me the next year when we reused the stakes. Lastly, the field was bush hogged and cleared of all remnants.

My family raised tomatoes from the time I was seven years old until I was fourteen.

Looking back, I realize so much of my youth was spent picking those tomatoes. 

One day mom and dad asked me and my sister to come to the living room, as they had something they wanted to tell us. They said the nearest tomato shed was now forty-five miles away and they had made the decision it was not feasible for us to continue growing tomatoes.

And then, just like that, I knew… this was truly the happiest day of my young life! More happiness would come my way later, but until then, this was my happy day. And as a bonus, I received a great education. I knew, without any doubt, I must figure a way to never ever have to grow stinking tomatoes to make a living!

“Man, that tastes great.” I think to myself.

A smile grows on my face as I scratch an imaginary mosquito bite from fifty years ago. I’m sure glad someone else grew that mater!

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