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OPINION | REX NELSON: Tomato time in Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | June 23, 2021 at 3:03 a.m.

The story on the front page of The Pine Bluff Commercial earlier this month caught my attention. The headline read: "First tomato box kicks off a yummy season."

Yes, it's the most wonderful time of the year. Arkansas tomatoes are ripe. In the photo that accompanied the story, River Grice, a fifth-generation farmer in Bradley County, was shown bringing the first box of tomatoes for 2021 to the Cooperative Extension Service office, accompanied by his father, Lynn Grice.

The Grice family farms about 16 acres of tomatoes and other produce. Tomato varieties they grow include Pink Girl, Bradley, Cherokee Purple and Red Mountain. The family also raises peppers, cantaloupes and watermelons.

That first box contained Red Mountain tomatoes, which were put on display at the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce office in Warren during the 65th annual Pink Tomato Festival.

Arkansas' tomato crop was a couple of weeks late this year due to the weather, but they're rolling in now.

"It has been a good year for zucchini, yellow squash and cabbage, but the cool and wet weather delayed the tomatoes," said John Gavin, the Bradley County extension staff chairman for the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture.

Better late than never, though, in this state that produces about 1.8 million pounds annually of the world's best tomatoes.

During long stints as editorial page editor of the Commercial and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg wrote a tribute to Arkansas tomatoes each summer. I hope to continue that tradition.

"It says something about how poor in taste this rich country is that the Bradley County pink should be almost a secret outside of southeast Arkansas," Greenberg wrote in his 2006 tomato column. "The lug of tomatoes a good deal lighter by now, I drive home with visions of a perfect salad dancing in my hungry mind. It will star one of the Amelias, for it would be a sacrilege to chop up a Bradley County pink in a Third World, Sweep the Kitchen salad featuring lettuce, cheese, grilled chicken, banana slices, raisins, sugar-snap peas and peanuts.

"Sprinkled with delicate herbs dabbed with a little oil and vinegar, the salad will be ready to serve with tortilla chips and a Carta Blanca on the side. Ole! But even this late in the season, each Bradley deserves to be a simple solo act, or maybe served up on slightly toasted wheat bread, with just a suspicion of coarse salt, or a hint of olive oil, or maybe a chunk of sharp cheddar for contrast."

As cotton became less profitable in Bradley County during the 1920s, farmers began turning to tomatoes. The Jim Johnson, Rufus Woodward and Nathan Barber families were among the first to grow tomatoes commercially.

"With assistance from county agent C.S. Johnson, Woodward experimented with vegetable truck crops for marketing," Leah Forrest Sexton writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Woodward discovered that he was able to grow tomatoes from seeds in a hot bed that were later transferred to a cold frame and remained covered for protection from possible frost until they were placed in the fields. During the next two decades, more farmers experimented with pink tomatoes in Bradley County."

Farmers in the Hermitage area formed the Hermitage Tomato Market in 1949. It operated much like a tobacco auction as buyers bid on boxes of tomatoes. By 1950, the pink tomato crop was grossing more than $2 million in Bradley County.

By 1953, Warren had its own market with almost 100 farmers participating.

"Farm loans were available to assist these families," Sexton writes. "If they made their money back, they paid back their loans. The markets were prosperous at each of their beginnings, and Bradley County's pink tomato landed in grocery stores throughout the nation. Community leaders also raised money to enlist assistance from the Cooperative Extension Service."

The inaugural Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival was held in June 1956.

The first commercially sold pink tomato was the Gulf State Market tomato. It grew in Bradley County from the 1920s into the 1950s but wasn't resistant to a disease known as Fusarium Wilt Race 1. The U.S. Department of Agriculture later came out with what was known as the Pink Shipper tomato, which proved more resistant.

In 1961, Joe McFerran of the Cooperative Extension Service crossed the Gulf State with another USDA-developed line to create the Bradley Pink. The Traveler and Traveler 76 later were introduced in response to disease mutations.

"A major shift in the tomato industry occurred in the mid-1980s with red tomatoes gaining prominence in the commercial market over the more problematic pink tomatoes," Sexton writes. "Pink breeds, which are more prone to disease, have to be pruned more often than red breeds, usually every week to two weeks. Red breeds are also much firmer than pink, and this decreases the chance of shipping damages.

"Numbers drastically decreased statewide in tomato production during the 1980s when the switch was made from pink to red breeds throughout the nation, but some families who were active in the early pink tomato industry have younger generations maintaining the tradition of growing pink tomatoes. Red breeds remain the primary shipping tomato, but many Bradley County farmers still grow some form of pink tomato."

The production of heirloom tomatoes (varieties that are at least 50 years old and open-pollinated) has been on the rise in recent years in Bradley County and other parts of Arkansas.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Print Headline: Tomato time in Arkansas

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