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Culling Time

When tomato farming in Jacksonville meant selling the best and savoring the rest

Illustration by Sarah Ferone

The other day, while picking tomatoes from my garden, I remembered how, growing up in the 1970s, we gathered under the large oak tree in my parents’ yard and made tough decisions. Which produce would go to town?

Of all the crops we grew, tomatoes were my favorite because someone always brought a saltshaker to the fields. A misshapen or overripe tomato was a prime fruit for eating. Right there in the field, I would stop and enjoy the juicy snack.

After picking the ripe ones—and a few yellow and large green ones, too—we headed home around midmorning, sweaty and tired. The important part was next: culling time.

The prettiest, most perfectly shaped red tomatoes went into one basket, while the blemished, funny-shaped or otherwise flawed ones filled another basket. Under the shade tree, a breeze kept us cool while we’d chat and separate the produce.

About 55 years prior, around 1917, the farms surrounding Jacksonville, in Cherokee County, south of Tyler, produced 90% of the tomatoes shipped from Texas. The area’s sandy soil still grows some of the best tomatoes in the state. And my family learned to take part in that business.

We took our best tomatoes to town. However, have no fear—there were plenty of uses for the culled ones that we kept for ourselves: soup, cobbler, picante sauce and, of course, lots for canning.

Texas’ tomato industry once employed thousands of people on the farms, in packing sheds and in the factories that made boxes and baskets. Over time Jacksonville became known as the tomato capital of the world.

Some of the old packing sheds with wide dock doors still stand next to the train tracks. That was where farmers sold their vegetables to be shipped all over. One of the six basket factories in the county still operates in town too. Many of my relatives worked at basket factories, or as we called them, box factories.

Competition and marketing problems caused a collapse in the tomato business in the 1950s. During the ’70s we took our tomatoes and other vegetables to the local farmers market. Bulk buyers bought from us and drove to the larger Dallas or Houston farmers markets. There they could make double the profit.

Our father would stubbornly say, “I see no reason to drive that fa’ to sell a tomato.”

Yesterday, examining my ripe tomatoes, I found one with yellow spots and a distorted shape. Oh well, even the imperfect ones have purpose. I grabbed the saltshaker.