The Planted Row: The secret to growing tomatoes

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Farm Forum

Over the years I’ve come to realize that while there’s one big downside to being a child of an Extension agent (your parent is rarely at home), there are plenty of upsides. I had excellent educational opportunities through easy access to a university. I was always quickly introduced to the latest ag technology. I got to travel with my father and see new places. I got to meet many excellent people in the agricultural field, from farmers to educators to researchers to politicians.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an Extension brat is the stories. Your basic county agent talks to basically everyone, and along the way they pick up quite a few good stories. Listening to my father relate these tales is always pretty good entertainment. In honor of the recent 100th anniversary of the Cooperative Extension Serivce, I’ll relate a couple of those stories here. Maybe they’ll give you a small glimpse into what life is like in the rural South where I grew up.

The secret

Recently, my father met an 88-year-old man who lives in northern Mississippi, near the border with Tennessee. He lives along a well-traveled road that was once the likely route of retreat taken by the Confederate army after the Battle of Shiloh.

This man, Mr. Tucker, grows an excellent garden. One day, a man pulled up in a nice car, and he got out to ask Mr. Tucker in what sounded like a thick Yankee accent, “What is your secret for growing these tomatoes?”

Mr. Tucker told the man he didn’t have any secret, but the man wouldn’t believe him. He said, “I’ve been driving this road for years now, and no one has tomatoes like your tomatoes.”

Mr. Tucker insisted that he didn’t have any secret. He said he’d been growing a garden for most of his 88 years, and he’d always grown them the same way. There was no special trick to it. He just grew tomatoes.

The man left, but he didn’t believe Mr. Tucker, and occasionally, he would stop by to ask about the secret to growing perfect tomatoes again. Mr. Tucker always gave him the same answer until, finally, he was tired of talking to the man. On their last visit, Mr. Tucker looked over his garden. He liked to repurpose old materials, and for years he had used pieces of pipe from an old house to stake his tomatoes. He noticed those pipes, and he asked the man, “You really want to know the secret to growing tomatoes?”

The man replied, “Yes, I do.”

Mr. Tucker responded, “I stake my tomatoes with hollow pipes, and they channel the energy of the atmosphere right down to the roots.”

The man thanked Mr. Tucker profusely for the secret and has not been back to bother him again. It seems an old Southern boy took one final departing shot at the North and found his mark.

Autumn olives

It is well known that Southerners enjoy their food as much as they enjoy a good jest.

One time a landowner walked into my father’s office with a sample of berries that he found growing in the woods on his property and asked if my dad could identify them. My dad had never seen the berries before, so he told the homeowner he’d have to send the berries down to the university and have them identified.

A week later the report came back, and my father called the landowner and told him they were autumn olives, somewhat rare in northern Mississippi, but good forage for wildlife. The landowner asked him, “Can you eat ’em?”

My dad said, “Yes, they’re edible.”

The landowner replied, “That’s good, ’cause I’ve done made 10 quarts of jelly.”

I’ve never met any South Dakotans who would make 10 quarts of jelly out of berries they didn’t know were safe to eat, but if you know of any, let me know. I bet they have some great stories.