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Cotton to tomatoes expands horizons

After 27 years of farming cotton, corn, and soybeans in the Benton community of Yazoo County, Miss., Thomas Johnson was looking for a new direction.

“I got tired of cotton as a main crop. A fellow I know in Lowndes County, Miss., had an operation centered around tomatoes and I thought it would have potential in my area, so I decided to give it a try.”

His goal for the new venture: “I wanted to see if I could grow tomatoes on a commercial scale that were equivalent in taste and quality to what people could grow in their backyard gardens.”

That may sound simple enough, but anyone who has bought a mealy, tasteless supermarket tomato advertised as “vine-ripened” knows how miserably it fails to come anywhere near the quality of home-grown.

“People who grow tomatoes for supermarkets don't put taste or quality foremost,” says Johnson, who's now in his second year of producing tomatoes for sale at the farm and through an area wholesaler. “The varieties from big commercial growers are bred for shipping — pulled green, gassed to promote ripening, and shipped all over the country. That kind of tomato will never have any taste.”

On the other hand, he says, “You can't grow home garden varieties for the commercial trade. Better Boy and similar varieties are bred to be picked right out of the garden. I wanted a commercial variety similar to that, with a better disease package.”

Dr. David H. Nagle, Extension professor of plant and soil sciences at Mississippi State University, and Dr. William B. Evans, assistant research professor at the Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station at Crystal Springs, Miss., were helpful with information and advice, Johnson says.

“They do a lot of tomato trials at Crystal Springs, so quite a bit of performance data was available. Also, there's a tremendous amount of information available on the Internet from research done in other states where tomatoes are grown commercially.”

In 2002, Johnson started with 5,000 tomato plants to see “if I could grow quantity with quality, and it worked out well; my customers loved the tomatoes.”

This year, he'll have 14,000 plants over the season. Planting started March 14 for the June crop and continued on a two- to three-weeks basis through mid-July, when plants for the October crop went in the ground.

“The variety is key for this type operation. I grow Mountain Spring, Merced, Big Beef, and Equinox. They can be picked at the breaker stage, when they're just turning color, and they'll continue ripening into a very nice tomato for the supermarket. Or they can be left on the vine to ripen fully for sales here at the farm.”

Seed are purchased from different sources, depending on variety, and are grown by Rushing Nursery near Edinburg, Miss. “I give them my planting schedule and they sow the seed in 72-plant flats six weeks ahead of my planting date.”

Rowing-up and placement of drip irrigation lines are done with the same implement, after which tomatoes are planted by hand. Stakes are placed between every other plant and multiple trellising lines are strung to support the growing vines.

“In the spring, when weather and soil are still cool, we use black plastic over the rows to retain heat and promote growth; as we get into summer, we switch to white plastic to reflect heat away from the root zone and keep plants from cooking.”

Watering with the drip system is four hours per field zone per day after the plants start fruiting, “but during hot, dry weather, the system may be running 24 hours a day to cover everything.” Water comes from a community system, but Johnson says he may irrigate from his farm pond in the future in order to reduce water costs.

Spraying for diseases is on a five-day schedule, using Quadris and Bravo fungicides. Frequent heavy spring rains caused some bacterial leaf blight, which was treated with a copper fungicide. Pesticide applications are made for worms, stinkbugs, and thrips; the latter can be a vector for the spotted wilt virus, which can wipe out a tomato crop. Materials used are Asana, Pravado, Monitor, and Sevin.

A high pH is necessary, at least 6.5, to prevent blossom end rot, Johnson says. The fertilization program starts with an initial application of 100-100-100, followed by calcium nitrate with a greenhouse grade fertilizer that is highly soluble and can be applied through the drip irrigation system.

“Tomatoes can use more nitrogen than cotton — easily 125 pounds to 150 pounds per acre.”

Perishable crops such as tomatoes entail quite a lot of risk, he notes. “Timing is critical. When they're ready, they're ready, and you can't put off getting them harvested and sold.

“The first weeks in June are a really heavy demand period. People want good tomatoes, but those in their gardens aren't ready, so they come here. As their garden tomatoes begin coming in around July 4, sales here at the farm drop off and we do more wholesaling. Then as home gardens begin playing out late summer, business picks back up here. With our staggered planting, we'll have tomatoes through at least the middle of October; last year, we continued sales through Oct. 31.”

Johnson and his wife, Annita, enjoy running the farm sales outlet and the rapport with their customers. They have two full-time employees and other labor is hired locally as needed during the season.

In addition to tomatoes, he also grows sweet corn, “which has been a very good seller” at the farm, along with some green peppers and hot peppers, and preserves, pickles, and other items his wife makes. He purchases bulk packages of shelled peas and butterbeans from Churchill Farms at Natchez and resells them at the farm.

“I've found that to properly do retail sales, the more items you have available, the better customers like it, and the greater your volume.”

To that end, Johnson planted nearly 1,000 watermelon vines this season. Most are seedless varieties, along with some seeded types for pollination.

“I mostly wanted to see if I could create demand for this kind of melon. Although 50 percent of the watermelons sold nationally are seedless, and the number is growing yearly, Mississippi sales account for only 5 percent.

“When my seedless melons first started coming off, nobody would take them. They weren't familiar with them, the melons weren't as big as the seeded kind — they run about 15 to 17 pounds — and people wanted the bigger melons.

“So, we started giving everyone who came here a sample from the seedless melons, which are sweeter and juicier. It was a fast conversion. Everyone wanted the seedless melons. Based on our experience this season, I'll definitely plant more next year.”

Looking to sales this fall, Johnson replaced some of the early tomato rows with pumpkins, which he plans to sell locally for autumn/Halloween decorating. “I've planted large, medium, and small varieties, and depending on how they produce and sell, I'll decide whether to continue it next year.”

To extend his product marketing even further, Johnson has a Web site,, which offers 5-pound and 10-pound boxes of “the most delicious tomatoes grown in the southern United States,” shipped nationwide. The site also includes recipes and frequently asked questions about tomatoes (Should tomatoes be refrigerated? No. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Technically a fruit, although it is classified as a vegetable.).

While Johnson is enthusiastic about his swap of cotton for tomatoes, watermelons, etc., he laughingly admits some “lessons learned.”

In addition to the regular tomatoes, he planted two kinds of grape tomatoes, which have sold well.

“But most of the Romas I grew are still in the field. They're great for sauces, but people just don't buy them. I also grew some yellow tomatoes, which taste quite good, but I couldn't give them away — people want red tomatoes.

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