J.T. Lemley runs his “mule” around a field of squash plants, their tiny green shoots peeking out from the dry soil. It’s been a tough year for Texas farmers like J.T., what with the megadrought, months of triple-digit temperatures and hungry deer on the roam. His five tractors are idle. His ponds are nearly dry. The drought shortened the season for his vine-ripened tomatoes. Even the ice cream churned with his famed peaches is gone, licked up before Labor Day, thanks to the hot weather.
So why is the 64-year-old farmer grinning as he guns his mule — a Kubota ATV — alongside a row of tatty-looking tomatoes? He answers by reaching across the ATV and snatching small orbs of organic Sun Gold tomatoes off the vine. He pops a couple of ’em, unwashed, into his mouth. “This is the way I like to eat,” he says, sharing a couple. They taste like sunshine. I grab a few more, and so does he. “You’ve been served out the mule window,” he says, with a gentle smile. Here’s a man who loves what he does.
Last Christmas, I wrote about farmers in South Dakota who grow the soybeans that fatten up your turkey. Oh, how the organic produce guys out West howled! (Mechanized farming — boo hiss!) It was a bit unfair — you can’t grow heirloom tomatoes when it’s 40 below in South Dakota — but it felt right to pay homage this holiday to the farmers who grow locally and try to grow organic. Like J.T., they’re out to make a tomato that tastes better and put local produce back on our plates. But being a farmer today requires tricky choices: organic or not? Genetically engineered or not?
Just because J.T. looks like someone’s image of a 1950s farmer (down to the denim overalls) doesn’t mean he’s stuck in old ways. “Do we want a lantern to read our books by, or a lightbulb?” he asks from his soapbox seat in the ATV. He grows some heirloom tomatoes organically, mostly for trendy restaurants in nearby Dallas, but he grumbles that old-fashioned tomatoes catch diseases and often look terrible. For his farmers market customers, he grows Celebrity tomatoes, one of the first hybrids.
“I try to be user-friendly. I’m not completely organic because I can’t stand to see my stuff die,” he says. “Who wants to eat an old tomato that’s all shriveled and diseased up? Would you want to put it on your plate?” No, we want pretty and good tasting, of course. J.T. says he’s learned by avoiding the mistakes of giant growers. “It’s what you feed ’em,” he confides. Which is? “Ahh … that’s a secret. I use a lot of organic material, cottonseed meal, seed mulch, seaweed, fish emulsion. It all helps the flavor.”
Farming wasn’t in J.T.’s family. “A friend of mine wanted to put in a little ol’ patch of termaters and potatoes,” he says, falling into his Texas drawl. That was 1976. Today he has 60 acres near Canton, but he usually works just a few at a time. He’s made mistakes: He went to the Rio Grande Valley for tomato plants years ago and brought back every disease they had. He’s always experimenting, but he’s still not sure about engineered seeds. He stays up nights reading farm literature on pest control. “I am reading constantly, and I’m not smart enough to make an opinion yet,” he says.
We’re passing the greenhouses, where he’ll grow his Christmas tomatoes. Then we drive half a mile, following a line of blue tubing that carries water to his farthest fields, where he hopes the fall squash will take root. “2011 is the worst year ever,” he says. Though he works hard — from 5:30 or 6 in the morning until dark — he worries about the winter months when he has no cash crop. “It’s hard,” he admits. “You don’t know any lazy farmers, do ya? They done went and done something else.”
He hopes family will inherit the farm. “Got a granddaughter who I have high hopes for,” he says. “She’s 5. I’ve got her planting. I got her a little bucket and a little spade, the whole nine yards. She comes here every day after day care.” About now, as you’re reading this, he’s planting his “not-yet-famous” ?Lemley onions. (They taste sweet, like Vidalia onions.) In January, he’ll start plants from seed — tomatoes and peppers — to sell to other farmers. By March, he’ll have 3,000 to 4,000 hanging baskets for sale. Then there’s the spring and summer crops. His little “sugar bullet” peaches start in late May.
“I’ve been doing it for 35 years, and I’ve never gotten rich,” he says.
But you love it, yes?
“I do,” he says, simply.