Sheilla Lampkin

When I was growing up my grandmother was a master at having an old adage appropriate for any occasion. Most have proven to be true. Two of my favorites are “What goes around comes around” and “History repeats itself”. Both apply to this story.

Friday evening at the Trotter House the UAM Agriculture Department held a “tomato dinner” to promote their project involving Heirloom tomato varieties. It was a huge success and reminded me of a series of articles I wrote a few years ago about the evolution of the tomato industry in Drew County. I’m going to now share a summary of those articles with you and, hopefully, make a point to illustrate Granny’s “sayings”.

Although tomatoes had been grown in home gardens for many, many years, the tomato industry in Drew County actually began in the 1910s when a young man from Green Hill named Henry Holland returned home from an extended visit in Jacksonville, Texas, the Tomato Capital of Texas. While there, he had observed and learned much about the tomato market industry, including tying, staking, pruning, picking, packing and marketing the tasty fruit.

Henry returned to Drew County in 1917 and planted an acre of tomatoes on the George Veasey place in the New Hope area. He later marketed them and was so successful that six neighbors joined him and planted 15 acres of tomatoes the next year.

Holland not only taught his friends and neighbors how to successfully plant and grow tomatoes, but also how to pack and ship them. Thus the tomato market was born in southeast Arkansas.

In 1919 tomatoes grown in Holland’s hot beds on Rough ‘n Ready Hill planted 115 acres. His ideas took root and spread to neighboring counties. According to Rebecca DeArmond’s book, Old Times Not Forgotten, there were 11 tomato sheds in Monticello and three in Fountain Hill in the early 1920s.

The tomatoes originally were picked ripe, but “green wraps” soon became the principal shipping crop from Drew County.  I am told that pink tomatoes were marketed from Bradley County in 1924.

In 1925 the Monticello Chamber of Commerce built a small canning factory to help make a market for the ripe tomatoes and other produce. So many of the extra “ripes” went to the factory that it soon was too small to handle its business. As reported in a March 8, 1936, issue of the Arkansas Gazette Sunday Magazine, Drew Oil Mill stepped in and built a $25,000 canning factory that employed 300. Tomato culls brought $10 a ton at the factory. Keep in mind that this was a fair price when the rest of the country was in the midst of a depression.

According to that same article, there were five tomato packing sheds around town that buyers had erected for packing prior to shipping. Jobs were created as people were employed picking tomatoes, taking them to the sheds and packing them. Often packing often went on all night – or until the task was completed.

In 1936 it was said that the growers benefited greatly from the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and their soil erosion demonstrations being conducted on Monticello Ridge. The local CCC camp even practiced similar techniques in soil erosion prevention on lands they cleared.

Soon the South Arkansas Truck Growers Association was formed to unite producers of a variety of “truck” crops, ranging from spinach to potatoes to tomatoes to corn, to help growers get the best prices for their crops. Commercial buyers also roamed the area purchasing and packing tomatoes to move them through regular channels of trade.

In those days the tomato seeds were planted in special hotbeds between February 1st and 10th. Next, the seedlings were sold to producers who set them in cold frames about seven feet wide and 64 feet long. Each cold frame usually held about 4000 plants, the number required to plant an acre.

After about a month, the plants were considered hardened to the weather and set out in the fields. By now it was usually April. Plants were set two feet apart in rows five feet apart. They were staked and tied individually, for the most part. When the tomatoes turned light green, they were picked and sent to the packing shed to be prepared for the market.

In 1935 the first Monticello Ridge Tomato Festival was held by the Lions Club to recognize the importance of the tomato industry to the area. In 1936 the Tomato Festival was held in conjunction with Arkansas’ Centennial celebration and became an annual event. Our beloved and respected Patty Moffatt was the Tomato Queen and there were 2000 acres planted for shipping and/or canning during the mid-June season in 1936. The festivals continued for several years, but the last big tomato festival in Drew County was held in 1941 prior to WWII.

During the WWII years of 1941-1945 the tomato industry no doubt slowed because many of the men were away at war and many women tended other tasks. However, there were tomatoes grown and a smaller market did exist. The canning factory still operated and tomatoes were still shipped out to market, although not in as great a quantity. One late friend told me his biggest problem marketing his tomatoes during those war years became keeping his truck tires “patched” so he could get his produce to market. At that time almost all of the tires went to the war effort and buying new ones was practically unheard of. He recalled he had a “patch kit” and had to keep “patching his patches”, At the war’s end, the tires were one big patch.

After the war interest in the festival waned and the last recorded one was held in 1951. In 1956 neighboring Warren adopted the idea and the Monticello Ridge Tomato Festival faded into antiquity. The great opportunity of having a successful festival was lost to us while Bradley County turned it into a major state festival that recently celebrated its 55th year.

Nevertheless interest in the tomato industry itself was just beginning to develop, or redevelop, into a lifestyle in Drew County at the end of WWII after its first successful near half-century.

At the end of the war many farmers returned home and cast their lots with the tomato industry. By the early 1950s “pinks” ruled the markets. An early pink variety that was grown in abundance was listed as the Gulf state variety. The Drew County Tomato Growers’ Association was soon born so growers could work together to improve their marketing options.

It seemed that everyone wanted to get into the market that was proving very lucrative at the time. Tomato fields were planted and sheds built in many neighboring counties. I even recall going to the shed(s) at Watson in the bottoms of neighboring Desha County with my grandparents during its brief existence.

In 1955 the Advance Monticellonian reported 400-plus acres planted in Drew County with the average acreage being one and one-fourth acre per family. In that same year the Monticello Tomato Auction was born. In 1957 two sheds were built for their market and things livened up. Over $250,000 worth were sold that year and 600 acres were pledged to be planted the next year.

In 1961 the University of Arkansas introduced the famed Bradley tomato to south Arkansas and a legend was born. By 1965 the association had grown to five sheds where more than 200,000 crates of tomatoes were sold. The tomato industry and its related jobs were valued at $750,000  in the county. (Can you believe the Bradley is only 50 years old? I thought it had been available much longer!)

Later some growers felt the need for a tomato variety that shipped well and had a more consistent size and shape than the Bradley. The ever vigilant agricultural scientists at U of A introduced the Arkansas Traveler variety in 1970 and the Traveler 76 in 1976. Both varieties were favored over the Bradley by the buyers because they were more consistent in size and shape and the Bradley tomato lost its shipping crown. However, locals and true aficionados still prefer the Bradley for its famed taste.

In 1974 the tomato crop peaked when 315,000 lugs set an all-time sales record. In 1978 an estimated 200 growers produced 300,000 lugs that netted over $1 million. A lug is a 20-pound box.

However, changes had come to the industry and more were certainly on the way. Although these changes weren’t the only reasons for the falling markets, they certainly didn’t help. Some of the changes were productivity issues, including the abandonment of the smaller cold frames for hothouses because temps could be controlled and more seedlings could be grown. (However, more overhead was accumulated.) Another change came when staking and tying each plant individually went by the wayside to be replaced by trellising and the two plants per stake method. These may have helped the bigger farmers, but hurt the smaller plots.

In 1981 sales reached only 100,862 lugs, but added $433,090 to the economy.

In June of 1982, 8,968 lugs were sold the first day the market was open with prices for No. 1 tomatoes ranging from $10 to $8.10 per lug. This was a good price for the times, but later the market dropped.

The next year, 1983, the market had its worst year to this point. Only 28,784 lugs were sold.

In 1985 the sheds had been renovated, yet the first day saw only 1,388 boxes sold. Near the end of the season the total only reached 56,788. Prices had also dropped in recent years. Many thought the bottom had fallen out of the market.

Why? Speculations were rampant and included weather, earlier crops in other states, a decline in the number of growers, labor costs, and the loss of growers and buyers to sheds in neighboring counties. Then the spotted wilt virus hit in 1986 and the tomato market in Drew County has never been the same.

The U of A tomato breeding program scientists had already developed newer varieties of tomatoes and, even though the newer Mountain Pride variety seemed to be more disease resistant and firmer for shipping, they worked furiously to combat the spreading virus.

The next few years showed decreasing acreages and disappointing prices. In 1988 the market in the county opened with 27 growers and only four buyers. Many growers had begun to take their tomatoes to nearby markets for better prices or bought their own trucks and shipped their own tomatoes.

By 2001 the market in Drew County was all but extinct. Growers who had not shifted to other markets had discovered a highly profitable market selling from their own homes. This trend continues today. People seem to know where and when the freshest vegetables and fruits can be found. Almost everyone seems happier with that situation.

Time has seen many changes and the glory days of the Monticello tomato market are gone. Still summer begins with the arrival of the fresh tomato crops. The most frequently planted varieties are the Amelia, the Mountain varieties and the newer grape tomatoes. Yet Bradleys still are the most requested variety and demand top prices.

So you see, the tomato industry in Drew County is nearly 100 years old and had risen to great heights before falling to a somewhat sadder state. Yet it is making a comeback. That comeback may be heightened even more with the re-emergence of the once-abandoned, yet highly flavorful, Heirloom tomatoes. Time has changed the industry and those varieties that came and went are coming back. Thanks, Granny, for your words of wisdom.

Incidentally the Bradley tomato can now be considered an heirloom tomato as it is 50 years young this year! Happy eating!