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Tomato grower relies on friends, neighbors to bring in the harvest

By Darrell Blackwelder
For the Salisbury Post
It’s up early in the morning if you help Junie Fleming with his early summer tomato crop.
At 6:30 a.m., most of us are just rising, but tomato pickers and graders for Fleming are already at their stations with a long day ahead. Even with the unseasonable weather this spring,
Fleming has managed to beat the odds and produce a good crop. Harvest is critical and time is a factor. His crop has managed to dodge recent bouts of hail that in years past has crippled harvests. In 1983, Fleming’s crop was devastated by hail as large as the fruit itself.
Fleming is a Woodleaf trellised tomato producer who clings to tradition but embraces research. His crop begins in mid-February with seeding in special tomato-production greenhouses. The plants are set in early April, dodging frosts for early market tomatoes. Early planting allows him to harvest an early crop into a very narrow window for premium sales. Tomatoes are staked with short, oak tomato stakes. Staking allows for easy harvest, larger fruit and less disease problems. Using local friends and neighbors to help with harvest and packing, Fleming is the last of the Rowan county tomato producers who relies solely on local retirees and high school labor as his primary labor source at
peak harvest. It seems Fleming has developed a camaraderie that keeps his neighbors coming back each year to help with his crop.
Fleming has been selling to the same buyer in the Virginia mountains for more than 30 years. His buyer also clings to tradition, preferring a certain portion of the crop carefully placed in wooden bushel baskets. However, the tomato variety he plants is anything but traditional. Fleming plants tomato varieties bred by the N.C. Research Station in Fletcher. Like most Rowan County tomato producers, he also relies heavily on tomato varieties bred by Dr. Randy Gardner. These newer varieties are extensively researched using local producers as
research partners in the process. Ongoing research has produced
varieties that are prolific and disease resistant, needing fewer
protective sprays. The recent salmonella outbreak has been a
double-edged sword for many producers. Fleming’s volume of sales has increased locally. Buyers tell him they are confident of his crop because they can see it out in the field and know who packs the tomatoes.
Those interested in tomatoes will want to attend the Woodleaf Tomato Festival, sponsored by Unity Presbyterian Church in Woodleaf. Woodleaf tomato producers will be participating in this event, scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 16.
Darrell Blackwelder is an agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County. Contact him at 704-216-8970.

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