EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Growing Tomatoes

In 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the county courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey, and ate a tomato in front of an obviously anxious crowd. At the time, it was widely believed that this “love apple,” with its passionate red color, was poisonous. To the onlookers’ relief, Johnson suffered no ill effects from eating the tomato. Before long, many others were eating tomatoes as well.

Popular though this legend was where I grew up near Salem, the Spanish had long since taken tomatoes from Mexico, where they likely had been brought from Peru, and introduced them into Europe and Asia. Tomatoes were produced and eaten in Spain and Italy in the 1500s. In fact, tomatoes were apparently grown and eaten in Salem’s own neighboring Cumberland County as early as 1812. By 1835 they were being produced in large quantities in southern New Jersey. Commercial canning of tomatoes in the area began around 1860.

Cumberland County, where we lived and where I farmed, soon became the tomato-growing cradle of the country. By the time Carl and I started growing tomatoes, they were one of New Jersey’s most popular and most highly valued products. South Jersey supplied fresh tomatoes each summer to Philadelphia and New York. In addition to canning them, the industry turned them into tomato juice, tomato soup, and ketchup. With two tomato processors in Bridgeton, P.J. Ritter and Pritchard’s, the summer air was filled with the mouth-watering aroma of ketchup being cooked in huge vats laden with spices. This aroma was an integral part of every summer of my youth.

In addition to tomatoes, other processing crops important to South Jersey included asparagus, lima beans, peas, green beans, and sweet corn. Peach orchards and strawberry fields further added to the mix. It was the farm produce from this area that made New Jersey “the Garden State.”

By the spring of 1951, Carl and I were ready to take our farm projects to another level. We planted our first field of tomatoes. It was just six miles from the courthouse steps where Johnson had eaten a tomato in a public display. We leased the land for one year and signed a contract with the P.J. Ritter Company to grow seven acres of tomatoes (28,000 plants) and deliver the produce to the cannery for $32 per ton.

P.J. Ritter provided the tomato seedlings and technical advice through their fieldman, a tomato expert. The seedlings were grown by the company in Cairo, Georgia, and when they reached six inches or so in height they were carefully hand-pulled and put into bunches of fifty. Their roots were wrapped in damp moss surrounded by brown wrapping paper and tightly wedged into baskets to prevent them from drying out. They were loaded onto a tractor-trailer and driven directly to Bridgeton, where local farmers like us would meet the trailer to get our contracted 20,000, 30,000, or 50,000 tomato plants.

When the truck arrived, we sprang into action. The fields had already been plowed and prepared. Now it was time to plant. At this time, we were still planting tomatoes by hand. Using a tractor-drawn marker to lay out the rows and the cross rows so we would know exactly how far apart to plant the tomatoes, we went to work in earnest.

Once the school day ended Carl and I scrambled to take advantage of the remaining daylight hours. It took us several days to plant all the seedlings. Then it was time to cultivate to control the weeds and to keep an eye out for insects. Later in the season, we’d be checking for diseases such as the tomato blight.

During our first few years of tomato farming, we, like almost everyone else in the area, grew the Rutgers tomato, a variety that dominated the production of tomatoes for processing in the northeastern United States for a generation. A highly productive, tasty tomato that was released by the university in 1934, it had been developed by Lyman Schermerhorn, a professor of plant science at Rutgers University, and his graduate students.

But this era was soon to end. In the early 1950s the Campbell Soup Company, which had a large tomato-processing plant in Camden, was also investing heavily in developing new, more productive varieties of tomatoes. Before this initiative, the Phi Beta Kappa of tomato growing was the “Ten Ton Tomato Club.” Any farmer who harvested ten tons or more of tomatoes per acre was automatically a member. Within a few years, it became the Twenty Ton Club. It was an impressive example of what the systematic application of science to agriculture could do.

Of all the crops that we could grow, Carl and I chose tomatoes. Why? For one thing, the growing season of the tomato meshed well with the academic year. That is not to say there was no overlap, because the tomato fields had to be planted in April or, at the latest, early May—well before school was out. At the other end of the season, when school started in the fall, there were still tomatoes in the field. This too was scramble time for us.

At the same time, tomatoes are fun to grow. They are so responsive and productive. Displaying its fruit—some ripe, some ripening, and some still green—a tomato plant is a work of art. And I like the distinctive aroma of a tomato plant. To this day when I see a tomato plant I cannot resist smelling it.

One of the challenges for us was how to finance our ever-expanding tomato operation. My brother and I had an understanding with Pop. As long as we did our chores and got everything done and done well, Pop did not care what we did with the rest of our time. So in the spring, for example, my brother assumed the responsibility of milking not only the cows he was responsible for, but also mine. I, meanwhile, would run a mile and a half to a local farm to spend a couple of hours before school helping the farmer cut his four acres of asparagus. He paid $1 an hour, enabling us to accumulate some cash. It also provided some training, since I was running the mile on the school’s track team.

In addition to picking strawberries and cutting asparagus for other farmers, we would also help at hay baling time using an old truck we had bought to haul hay bales from the field to the haymow. Farmers liked to hire Carl and me because we worked so hard. We also competed with each other. I was the first to pick 100 baskets of tomatoes (thirty-five pounds each) in one day. Then Carl took it to 102. After that, the record went back and forth between us: 105, 107, 108, and then 110. It was no accident that I won the Cumberland County Junior Tomato Picking Championship in 1949! Nor that Carl was selected as a New Jersey Star Farmer by the Future Farmers of America!

In 1949 we bought our first tractor—a J.I. Case two-plow, mid-size tractor of ancient vintage—largely with earnings from picking tomatoes for other farmers. At 10¢ a basket for picking tomatoes, it took 2,000 baskets to pay for the tractor.

In late August 1951, on the weekend before I was to report to Rutgers University for freshman orientation, we faced a logistical problem. While I had a driver’s license, Carl did not. Once I left for Rutgers, Carl would still need to get tomatoes from our farm to the cannery a dozen or so miles away. The problem wasn’t so much the lack of a license, really, because young people on a farm often drove locally before they were licensed. The problem was that Carl had never driven a truck laden with tomatoes stacked five baskets high.

With this in mind, we decided to take a load to the cannery on Saturday, the day before I left. Loading over 200 baskets of tomatoes onto a truck is an art in itself. The body of a tomato truck is designed so the tomato baskets can be stacked in an extended pyramid, stretching from the front to the back. The sideboards enabled us to put another layer of baskets leaning in against the pyramid on both sides to stabilize it. It was a tried-and-true way of moving tomatoes from the farm to the processing plant. Our aging 1935 Chevrolet truck carried at least four tons of tomatoes.

We decided that Carl would drive the truck to the cannery and I would follow in the pickup soon after. He would have to get it in line, because there was always a long line of trucks waiting for hours to be unloaded.

The last stretch of road of five miles or so to the cannery was straight. Carl driving the heavily loaded truck came up behind a local farmer who was drawing two or three implements behind his tractor. Carl prepared to pass and was already well onto the left side of the road when he realized the farmer was going to move out into the center of the road to make a right turn into his driveway. The truck’s wheels went over onto the dirt shoulder and the truck began to lean with its heavy load. Carl pulled it back onto the road, but not all the tomatoes made it back with him. Part of the load tumbled off, leaving tomatoes strewn several inches deep across a swath of the road. He pulled over to assess the damage and wait for me.

By the time I arrived, cars had already driven over the road—and through the tomatoes. But as though they were driving through newly fallen snow, the drivers had kept to one lane, carefully using the same ruts to minimize the damage.

Someone suggested we call our field agent at P.J. Ritter. We called from the farmer’s house and the agent arrived quickly. Taking stock of the situation, he saw that most of the tomatoes on the road were still in good condition. Many were bruised and some were cracked, but it was obvious we had picked them carefully and that they were of unusually high quality. He suggested that we borrow a couple of shovels or scoops from the farmer to get as many of the tomatoes back on the truck as we could, preferably without sand or gravel. He said we wouldn’t be able to get all of them, but we could get most of them.

He requested that we then ask the farmer if we could park the truck behind his barn out of public view, since these cracked tomatoes could become a public relations issue for Ritter. And he told us to bring the truck into the plant the next morning at 5:30 a.m., when they would unload it immediately to minimize the chance of the cracked tomatoes spoiling.

Despite the loss of a small part of this load, we delivered many other loads and did well that year. We were officially tomato farmers. And since we did most of the work ourselves, much of the check that we got in November for all the tomatoes we had delivered put us in a position to buy another tractor—a brand-new one. My brother and I knew exactly what we wanted, a new Ford two-plow tractor. I suggested that he go ahead and buy it. Carl had worked hard and I wanted him to have the experience and satisfaction of buying the tractor.

He went to the local farm equipment dealer, who obviously knew us, but who was not well prepared to sell to a fourteen-year-old. It took him awhile to realize that my brother was serious and that he wanted not only a tractor but also the plow and cultivators to go with it. We bought that tractor in the fall of 1951 for $2,100 with an initial down payment of $700 and with the remainder to be paid in $700 installments in the fall of each of the next two years, a typical arrangement for farmers.

We had started growing tomatoes just when the industry was on the verge of rapid change. After a couple of years of planting by hand, we got a mechanical transplanter. The transplanter, on which four people could ride, planting two rows of tomatoes at a time, was drawn behind the tractor. Mounted on each side of the tractor hood were two drums filled with water that contained a liquid fertilizer. Thus, as each plant was going into the ground, roughly half a cup of water would be released at the same time to provide moisture around the roots of the plant as well as the essential nutrients: nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. This helped to get plants off to a faster start than with traditional hand-planting.

As our tomato-growing operation grew, we shifted from the local tomato processor, P.J. Ritter, to Campbell Soup, which could readily handle our larger harvests. It is hard to believe today that we were producing and delivering tomatoes to the Campbell Soup plant in Camden, New Jersey, for $34 a ton. Today you can carry $34 worth of fresh tomatoes home from a supermarket in a shopping bag.

During our first year of tomato growing with only seven acres, Carl and I picked nearly all the tomatoes ourselves. But as I expanded the acreage, eventually to seventy acres (280,000 plants) in 1958, we needed a lot of help with the picking. Our pickers included classmates, friends, and, as we grew larger, seasonal workers from nearby Salem and even some from Puerto Rico via a contract with the Puerto Rico Department of Labor.

Our sister, Marion, though she was much younger, also became part of our operation. By the time she was eight years old she was driving the tractor for the wagon that provided pickers with empty baskets. As she drove the tractor slowly across the field, carefully following a row so as not to damage tomatoes, we unloaded small stacks of empty baskets in the field so they would be in place for the tomato pickers. This is not the only thing Marion did in our tomato growing operation, but it was the part that she liked best.

Many years were to pass before mechanized tomato pickers took to the field and plant breeders began breeding tomatoes that were tough, designed to withstand the mechanics of picking and the stresses of being handled and shipped long distances. The luscious, flavorful tomatoes I had grown up with would soon be limited to a few garden varieties. Today the once widely grown Rutgers tomato has been replaced by another Rutgers product, the Ramapo tomato, grown by gardeners throughout the northeastern United States.

Carl and I have always had a close, understanding relationship. We took pride in the things that we had accomplished together from an early age. But while I enjoyed school, Carl did not. Carl dropped out of high school during his junior year and worked as a plumber’s apprentice during the winter. Once he became a licensed plumber, he set up his own business and turned his share of the tomato operation over to me. His entrepreneurial skills then took a different form. Using his knowledge about various houses from plumbing assignments, he began identifying those that looked dilapidated from the outside but were in fact structurally sound and in good condition inside. He bought these underpriced homes and then renovated and rented them. He now owns some thirty-five homes.

In February 1958, as I was thinking about the prospect of eventually settling down as a tomato grower in southern New Jersey, I realized that I might never get to the West Coast to see California. Given that I had a couple of weeks clear, I decided to hitchhike to a suburb of Los Angeles to visit Gloria D’Eve Ward, a woman who was in the group I went to India with and who was then teaching high school in Inglewood. I had $37 of traveling money. Carl drove me to the southern end of the New Jersey turnpike, less than twenty miles from home. From there, I hitchhiked north, connecting with the Pennsylvania turnpike and crossing Pennsylvania, Ohio, and into Indiana before leaving the turnpike and heading southwest.  From Indiana, I hitchhiked across southern Illinois, Missouri, and into Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, I was picked up by a professor from the University of Pittsburgh who was en route to a new teaching assignment in northern California. He was driving a large Buick that was several years old.  He was pleased to have someone with whom to share the driving, which meant we would not have to stop anywhere overnight.  As we left Oklahoma, crossed the Texas panhandle, and went into New Mexico, the car began to overheat because he had antifreeze in the radiator, not surprising since he was from Pittsburgh. He was not eager to stop. I suggested that we turn the heater up full blast and open the windows.

The heater in a car of that era functioned in a sense as an auxiliary radiator. This technique worked and we continued across New Mexico and Arizona into southern California. When he was ready to head north, he dropped me off in Pasadena, not far from where Gloria lived.

I spent a week with Gloria. We visited Disneyland, the Rose Bowl, and local historic sights. Then I headed back, taking more or less the same route.  The only time I was stalled was at midnight that first day. I found myself stranded on the road for a few hours in Needles, California, a sparsely populated area in the Mojave Desert on the Arizona border. Eventually I got a ride and made it back to New Jersey three days later.

Despite the occasional lulls, my hitchhiking times were surprisingly consistent. It took 69 hours going out and 72 hours coming back. One of the great things about hitchhiking is that it is inexpensive. When I got back to New Jersey, I still had much of the $37 that I had left with. Even though I was a successful tomato grower, money was still scarce. In establishing the price for contract-grown tomatoes, the companies always seemed to have the upper hand—negotiating low prices that would nonetheless provide all the tomatoes they needed.

A little hitch in my plans came in late spring of 1958 when I was subject to two years of compulsory military service. Like all able-bodied males at the time, I was ordered by the U.S. Army to report for a physical. In mid-summer of 1958, I was ordered to report for active duty. When word got out that I would soon be going into the army, the farm equipment dealer, to whom I still owed money, called the fertilizer dealer, whose fertilizer supply to us was to be paid for in the fall after the tomato harvest. They called the chairman of the local draft board arguing that it would be economically catastrophic for them and for the community if I were to leave for the army. Since both dealers were influential community leaders, the draft board chairman exempted me from duty. And, in fact, that year I marketed 1.5 million pounds of tomatoes. Becoming one of the largest tomato growers in New Jersey.

The eight-year tomato-growing period of my life, 1951 through 1958, began during my senior year in high school, spanned the four years at Rutgers (See Chapter 4), the months I lived in villages in India in 1956 (see Chapter 5), and two years beyond that. I had developed an attachment to the land. Even now whenever I return to Stow Creek for family visits, driving through the countryside with its fertile, sandy loam fields, patches of woodland, and creeks, I enjoy a sense of peacefulness and of being grounded. But by late summer 1958 the challenge of growing ever-more tomatoes was not as attractive as it once was.

To begin with, for farmers who did not own their own farm, the economics were not promising. You could make a living by renting land on a year-to-year basis, as I was doing, but only barely so. Land available for renting was usually inherently less fertile.  And since you were renting year-to-year, you could not, for example, set up a soil-building crop rotation. Beyond that, as a result of having lived in India, I was beginning to develop an interest in the growing imbalance between food and people in the world and wanted to do something about it. Based on all these considerations, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to join the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This would take advantage of my training and experience in agriculture while giving me the chance to work abroad.

But before we get to the FAS, I need to tell you about two exceptional experiences that helped shape my thinking, and indeed my life.