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Steve Smith was one of the good guys in Indiana agriculture

Steve Smith in a tomato field
MORE THAN TOMATO EXPERT: The late Steve Smith was at home in an Indiana tomato field, but he could also make regulators and politicians take notice when he visited Washington, D.C.
His business was tomatoes, but he was a friend of farmers, whether you grew tomatoes or not.

Some 20 years ago, I picked my way carefully across a tomato field in Tipton County, Ind., flanked by a tomato grower and Steve Smith, who worked with farmers who grew tomatoes for Red Gold. Ironically, a neighbor had sprayed herbicides on a nearby crop field, and Smith educated me about the susceptibility of specialty crops to certain herbicides.

In September 2019, I walked through another grower’s tomato field in Indiana with Smith. We watched the grower harvest tomatoes with a mechanical harvester. He gave me a tour through one of Red Gold’s tomato processing plants at Orestes the same day. If I hadn’t known it already, after that day, I was convinced that Smith was a man dedicated to agriculture, his industry and Indiana farmers. A picture of Smith evaluating tomatoes with Ray Utterback of Frankton graced the cover of the November 2019 Indiana Prairie Farmer.

I was elated to learn that the Indiana Certified Crop Advisers Association selected Smith as their Indiana CCA of the Year in December. Because the conference was virtual, I couldn’t take his picture. Normally, I feature the CCA of the year on a cover the following year.

More than tomato specialist

As it turns out, Smith received his cover recognition in advance, in November 2019. In late February, Smith died from COVID-19 complications. Farmers who worked with Smith lost a great CCA and tomato specialist. Red Gold lost its senior director of agriculture and a dedicated employee of almost 32 years. A family lost a great husband, father and grandfather. And even if you never raised a tomato, you lost a great champion for agriculture.

Why my first encounter with Smith was so ironic boils down to the fact that over the past few years since dicamba-tolerant soybeans and dicamba herbicides for soybeans were introduced, nobody fought harder to make farmers and industry aware of potential crop injury issues than Smith.

He led the charge at field days, in boardrooms and even in Washington, D.C. Smith was founder and co-chairman of Save Our Crops Coalition, a national group dedicated to protecting sensitive crops from damage he felt was implicit with the release of growth-regulator, herbicide-tolerant crops. He was also instrumental in helping promote Drift Watch programs to make farmers aware of where crops sensitive to a variety of herbicides were planted. This registry is still a key tool that helps all farmers know where sensitive crops are grown.

Smith was outspoken — no doubt about it. That’s because he was passionate. He believed in farmers and knew that given the right information they would make responsible choices.

Indiana agriculture is better for Smith’s work over his lifetime. Thanks to Smith, all farmers are more aware of the need for responsible environmental stewardship. He made Red Gold a better company, and he made the Indiana CCA a better organization.

He will be missed. But whether you ever met him or not, you owe it to his memory to think about your neighbors and your local environment every time you pull into the field with a sprayer. That’s a legacy Smith would appreciate.

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