Annual high yields a must: Stability stressed in tomato operation

In the summer of 1954, a hailstorm wiped out most of the gardens in the Pender County seat, leaving all but one family destitute of tomatoes. The Thomases were the only ones in town with tomatoes. That year they sold tomatoes and made several hundred dollars.

The next year, when Richard Thomas's father built a house on the outskirts of Burgaw, the family started in the tomato business.

Almost 50 years later, Richard Thomas continues in a business where production practices have changed, but the price of the produce has remained virtually unchanged.

The roadside stand his father built is still there, and the people still come to buy tomatoes, giving Thomas vital cash flow. Thomas has added hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes, seedless cucumbers, icebox watermelons and an acre and a half of strawberries to the mix, but tomatoes are still the staple.

“It's a rather unique operation, I think,” Thomas says. “We grow about 20 acres of tomatoes of one variety and sell the majority to one re-packer.”

Year in and year out, Thomas has to deal with diseases as well as the possibility of low prices.

He makes the best of the situation by striving for high yields and spraying religiously for diseases.

He realizes that low yields are one thing; low yields in a low market are quite another.

In an effort to diversify, Thomas starts out in early April with 5,000 square feet of hydroponic tomatoes, seedless cucumbers, bell peppers and an acre and a half of strawberries. He also grows a quarter to a half an acre of watermelons and cantaloupes.

While that's going on, he's out in the field setting out, staking, pruning, tying, spraying and growing the summer tomato crop. By the middle of June, he walks away from the hydroponic greenhouse production and focuses on the field tomato production.

Thomas plants his entire production to one variety, Mountain Spring, which was developed by North Carolina State University.

“I think if you went to anybody else they would tell you that you should grow about three varieties to spread things out,” Thomas says.

Mountain Spring has been a good variety for Thomas specifically because of its early maturity and firmness and size.

“It's not the earliest variety,” he says, “but when it comes to firmness and size, a lot of times it will be head and shoulders above the others. That's just been my experience with Mountain Spring.”

In the yield department, Thomas shoots for about 2,000, 25-pound boxes of tomatoes. “If you're going to be successful, that's the kind of yields you need to have.”

The road to those yields, however, is an uncertain one. Diseases and insects stand in the way.

“Tomato production is a science unto itself,” Thomas says. “You must spray religiously. It's got to come before anything else. You have to pay attention to detail.”

During the season, Thomas sprays every weekend without fail. “I do it on the weekend because all the labor is gone. Normally, I'm the only one handling the chemicals. This year we harvested seven days a week and I had a guy come in to spray for three weeks.”

Thomas points out that he doesn't scout the fields. “The disease and insect pressure is out there and you have to manage it. We do it just as sure as the sun comes up. It's just the practical thing to do. I probably spend a little more money and worry a little less because I just go ahead and put it out there.”

Bacterial wilt is one of the most pressing diseases that Thomas faces in tomato production.

“The only truly satisfactory way to deal with bacterial wilt is to rotate out of the field,” Thomas says. He grew tomatoes in the same field for more than 20 years and was “putting up with yield reductions” until he saw the benefit of rotation when he moved production to a nearby field.

“I just happened to be in a position to move to a field that's physically next to my land,” Thomas says. “I was able to run an irrigation pipe across the woods to the next field.

“I didn't really appreciate the value of rotating out of a field until I did it,” Thomas says. “The difference was the vigor of the plant and the size of the fruit.

“You have a lot of problems rotating because you have to develop irrigation in any new land you move to,” Thomas says.

While yields are important to success, a good price is the key to it. Yields have been good this season, but the price has remained low.

“You have to be able to survive in the low markets as well as stand back and laugh at the good times in the high market,” Thomas says. “You better come to the table with high yields every year simply because a low market is bad, low yield in a low market is a recipe for disaster.”

Thomas has added stability to his operation by selling primarily to one re-packer. There are benefits as well as disadvantages to selling to only one market.

He doesn't have to search for a market, because he's already got one. In a year where there's an over-supply, that's a plus. In some years, other producers will get more for their tomatoes than Thomas.

“We basically have a marketing window,” Thomas says. “Traditionally, prices are better early and drop off as the season goes on. There's a time to get in and a time to get out.”

Thomas says it's a business that fluctuates. “This is a business that any year you could wake up and it's just not going to work anymore,” he says. “I sell to one market.

“If you've got an acre and a half of tomatoes, it's one thing to peddle them around to grocery stores and stand at the end of the pickup truck and grin. But it's another thing if you've got 20 acres and you're trying to pay for land and a house and tractors and equipment and put away for retirement.”

In thinking about his future in the tomato business, Thomas looks back over his shoulder to a small table with a checkered table cloth. “See that little red table cloth on that table? That table generates a significant cash flow into this farm.

“People come around this driveway all day long when we've got tomatoes,” Thomas says. “The phone is ringing right now with people asking us if we have tomatoes. In the last few years that table has kept me afloat. I'm not saying it's paid the bills.

“What's really significant is when my parents were running this business, they sold tomatoes for $6, $7 and $8 a box,” Thomas says. “And here it is 30 years later and I'm selling tomatoes for $6, $7 and $8 a box.

“The only advantage I have over them is that I'm growing a few more boxes per acre, but it's hard to overcome that price,” Thomas says.

Thomas was four years old when the hailstorm of 1954 put his family in the tomato business. He spent his adolescent years working on the farm, raising and selling tomatoes.

After graduating high school, Thomas earned a degree from North Carolina State University in nuclear engineering. He then worked for Carolina Power and Light for two years before returning to the farm.

“My parents were getting about ready to retire and it was either I come back and take it or they were going to sell it,” Thomas says. “So that's how it got started.”

First in partnership with his father, then his mother and brother, Thomas and his wife took over the operation full time in 1989.

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