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Category: St. Clair Agriculture

With variables like weather, labor shortages and the trade environment over which they have no control, keeping up their 840-acre farm is hard work. Kate and John DeLoach own and operate DeLoach Farms in Vincent, just across the St. Clair County line.

They have survived by taking lessons learned from the past and from the current pandemic and turning them into new opportunities.

The past two years have seen tremendous change in the farm, going from primarily producing soybean, cotton, wheat, hay and corn, to serving more of the needs of the local community.

John’s great grandfather used to deliver kids to school in this school bus, then load up vegetables to peddle on the courthouse square in Pell City.

Their decision to offer farmer’s choice food boxes came out of a desire to meet the needs of the community at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They would put together a variety of fruits and vegetables in each box and meet customers for pickup. They now offer a full farm-to-table food box option with deliveries around St. Clair and Shelby counties.

Kate says their son, Jess, developed the farm-to-table food box program. He is an accounting major at Troy University. He came home just a few months into college when the pandemic shut things down. He dreamed it up and started selling the boxes while he was home.

It has been wildly popular, and Kate says they are hoping to include meat and eggs in addition to the fruits and vegetables this year. There are several options offered and include things grown on the DeLoach farm and by other nearby farms.

The U-Pick strawberry patch was also inspired by Jess. They have nine acres dedicated to strawberries and grow several different varieties. Unable to keep up with the demand last year, they have more than doubled their number of plants from 35,000 to 75,000 this year.

Dozens of people are scattered throughout the fields on a sunny Wednesday enjoying the strawberry picking experience. A grandma holds the hand of a giggly little girl with strawberry-stained fingers and mouth.

Another customer checks out with her five gallons of strawberries. She’s making strawberry jam today.

Still another is from Michigan, visiting her cousin, who brought her here to enrich her Southern experience. They’re planning to make strawberry shortcake later in the day.

These are the people John works so hard for. “People and strawberries are my favorite,” he says. “Getting to see the people enjoy the fruits (literally) of your labor is pretty great.”

“We so appreciate people who support the local farmer,” adds Kate. “The local buyers help to insulate us from the global supply chain issues. We kind of support each other.”

Serving his community is a labor of love for John, whose ancestors bought the land on the banks of Kelly Creek back in 1820. For him, it’s also about respecting the land and his heritage.

The land is traced back to John’s great-great-great-grandfather, John Martin, Sr., who moved from South Carolina to what was St. Clair County (before the county lines were redrawn) and bought the land to start his life with his new wife, Sarah. His son, John Martin, Jr., returned to the farm from the Civil War after having his arm amputated due to injuries sustained in the war.

Fast forward to 1915, and Frank Harrison Lowe, John DeLoach’s grandfather, was born in the two-room house on the farm. The farm thrived for more than a decade, then fell into decay and neglect during the Depression. Frank returned to the farm after World War II and began working to bring it back to its former glory.

Tremendous progress had been made by the time John was born. John remembers being a young boy and working alongside his grandfather on the farm. Watching his grandfather help a cow struggle to deliver her calf is one of his earliest memories. When his grandfather died in 1988, John promised his grandmother that if she kept the farm, he would take care of it. He worked the farm every day after school. When he graduated from high school at 16, he took over the daily operations.

Over 30 years later, running the farm keeps him very busy. He’s up each morning by 4:30 and falls back into bed exhausted by 7:30 most evenings. While he has a handful of people who work for him, he does a lion’s share of the work himself.

Beyond the planting and harvesting work, he even finds time to make furniture, like the picnic tables in the strawberry patch, with materials sourced on the farm. He runs fallen trees through the planer in his sawmill to be able to use what would be wasted.

He built a small fishing cabin with salvaged wood from former structures on the land and with cedar harvested there. The ceiling beams are from an old barn on the property that used to house a live nativity during Christmas.

Being a good steward of the land is one of the reasons he was honored as Alabama Farmer of the Year in 2018. That same year, DeLoach Farms was named the 2018 Alabama Farm of Distinction. For that award, farms are judged on sustainability, success as a business and conservation mindedness.

John credits his grandfather with instilling in him the need to responsibly care for the land and the creatures that use it. “We do a lot of conservation on the land,” he says. “We have beehives and plant things like clover and partridge peas for the wildlife. We have deer, fox, bobcats and lots of birds.”

Twenty acres of property is set aside as wetlands. The area is filled with stately tupelo trees, an important food source and shelter for migratory birds. It is also equipped with a special pump system that fills and empties the wetlands seasonally to support the health and sustainability of the habitat.

They live in the 10-room farmhouse built by John’s great-grandfather in 1918. “My granddad’s name in still written on a shelf in one of the bedrooms,” John says. It identified his grandfather’s personal storage space in a house full of children. The house was lovingly dubbed the “Halfway House,” because people said it was “halfway between where you were and where you needed to go.” And, according to family legend, it was a great place to stop for supper.

The house was also home to the first telephone line that connected local townspeople with doctors in nearby towns. It was installed in 1915 to give residents a way to connect people to the doctor in Vincent or the one in Easonville, the St. Clair County town now under water when Logan Martin Lake was created in 1965. They just had to make their way to the house and John’s great great-grandmother, Eva, would patch them through.

John’s great-grandfather, John Marion Lowe, also served the area by buying a school bus in 1925 to take rural children to school. After dropping them off at school, he’d come back to the farm, load up fresh produce and take it in to Pell City to sell.

The farm is one of eight in the state to be recognized as a Bicentennial Farm, a program that honors families who have owned and operated their farm for 200 years or more. “That’s quite a big deal,” explains Kate. “It gets harder and harder each year to stay open. There’s a lot of pressure to sell as the city creeps closer and closer.

“We’d love for someone to be here 200 years from now talking about the family farm.” But Kate adds, “It’s a hard way to make a living. We’ve never placed any expectations of farming on Jess.” His business and marketing sense in directing the food box deliveries and strawberry U-Pick operation seem to support that possibility.

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DeLoach Farms seems to be playing the long game. When the chips were down, they adjusted to meet the changing needs in the community. And they are growing again.

They have purchased adjacent property with plans to add a blackberry U-Pick operation in a year or two. There are also tentative plans for an apple orchard. This summer they look forward to opening a new area for picking sunflowers.

They will also have vegetables for sale all summer. If you are interested in the farm-to-table food boxes, contact them via Facebook, on Instagram or at www.deloachfarms.com. l

Hemp Farming

Odenville farm family pioneer new crop

Story by Scottie Vickery
Submitted photos from Tiffany Roach, TNR Creative,
and Scott McLeod

There were days not too long ago when Bobby Isbell looked out from the front porch of his Odenville farm and saw lost opportunity. Years before, the family had dabbled in running a Christmas tree farm, but the fields had been dormant for a while.

“All we had out here was grass,” the poultry farmer of 32 years said of the six acres that make up his yard. For Bobby, who has a love of agriculture running through his veins, it was a blank canvas of sorts. The more he looked at the land, the more he could picture a lush green crop dotting the landscape.

That’s why he decided to join the first wave of farmers in Alabama to grow industrial hemp, a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species harvested specifically to make an assortment of products – everything from paper and clothing to paint and biodegradable plastics. In addition, cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is made from industrial hemp and is widely used as a natural remedy for issues such as pain, inflammation and anxiety.

“I got to reading about it, and I thought we’d give it a go,” said Bobby, who opened Baldrock Hemp Farm LLC in 2019. The business, like all of his endeavors, is a family affair, and after two seasons of growing hemp and selling it to processors, the Isbells recently launched their own line of organically grown CBD creams, capsules and oils. The oils, available in different strengths, are offered with lemon, peppermint, spearmint or natural flavors. There’s even a pet food supplement with a bacon and herb flavor.

“Bobby’s always looking for an opportunity to benefit his family,” daughter-in-law Haley Isbell said. “He saw an opportunity to get us in on the front end of something, and we all trusted him. We knew if anyone could do it, he could.”

The education process

Before 2019, it was illegal to grow hemp, which comes from the same plant species as marijuana, in the United States. The Farm Bill of 2018, however, reclassified hemp from a controlled substance to an agricultural commodity. The main difference between the two is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical usually associated with getting high. Industrial hemp has a THC level of 0.3 percent or less while marijuana has higher levels of THC.

“We spend a lot of time answering that question,” Haley, who coordinates marketing for the business, said with a laugh. “No matter how many times we say it’s not the same thing, we still get the wink-wink, nod-nod sometimes.”

Before they could educate their customers, they had to learn more themselves. Bobby’s son, Bobby III, who is also a poultry farmer, jumped in with both feet. They were among the first Alabama farmers licensed to grow or process hemp in the state’s pilot program in 2019.

Growers, handlers and processors must be licensed by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI), and the regulation process is strict. According to Gail Ellis, hemp program manager for the department, the state issued 173 grower licenses for 2021, including three in St. Clair County.

Bobby’s wife, Lynn, said that her husband and son participated in seminars and conferences in Tennessee, Kentucky and other places to learn more about the industry, the products and the methods for growing hemp. “We tried to pick up as much knowledge as we could before we got into it,” Bobby said. “You can read all you want, but you have to learn by doing it. The first year was all work and no play.”

Besides following state regulations, the Isbells have also earned organic certification from Food Alliance. “My generation wants a more organic product with fewer chemicals, so we went through the process of being certified,” Haley said. “We wanted to offer a hemp product that was locally and organically grown so that we could provide our customers with the most natural way to address health and wellness issues.”

Learning curve

In addition to growing hemp, Bobby and his son are both still poultry farmers. Bobby raises about 125,000 chickens while Bobby III has about 127,000. “That first year, we were like single women,” Lynn said. “We didn’t really see them that much.”

Bobby and his son worked from daylight to dark, plowing the field, tilling the soil and preparing to plant hemp seeds in six acres. “That was way too much,” he said. “Now we just grow four acres, which is about 10,000 plants.” The planting process takes place in late May, and the crops are harvested in September or October.

The first year, they planted the seeds by hand. Last year, they germinated the seeds in the greenhouse and planted the seedlings. “That way you know you’ve got a plant in every hole,” rather than a seed that may or may not grow, Bobby said.

Like the vast majority of hemp grown in Alabama, the Isbells’ crop is grown for CBD oil. “Once the days start getting longer, they start sending out flowers and buds,” he said. “That’s what we want – the flowers to produce the oil. Out west, a lot of hemp is grown for the fiber. Carmakers make seats out of it.”

This year’s crop is the Isbells’ third, and they’ve learned a lot along the way. The first year, they planted the rows too close together and couldn’t get a mower through, so they had to cut the grass with a weed trimmer. This year, they made sure to leave enough space for a riding lawn mower.

Although the Isbells use organic methods to control bugs, Alabama hemp farmers have to be careful about the types of pesticides they use. “If you spray with something you’re not supposed to and take it to a processing plant, they’ll kick it out,” Isbell said.

In addition to approving seed sources and pesticides, the ADAI tests each crop in the state for THC levels, as well. If the level is higher than 0.3 percent, the field will be destroyed, according to information on the agency’s website. Growers must also submit GPS coordinates, which are forwarded to law enforcement so that officers can differentiate between a legal hemp crop and an illegal marijuana crop.

Bobby said he talked with the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, the district attorney’s office, and the Moody and Odenville police departments before planting for the first time in 2019. They also put up a fence with a green screen to keep animals out of the field and to discourage curious visitors. “Lots of people have stopped and looked, but we haven’t had any issues so far,” Lynn said.

The final product

Once the hemp is ready to be harvested – about 100 to 110 days after planting – the workload really increases. Last year they hired extra help, and it takes about two weeks to get it all out of the field. “We cut it by hand, and we try not to ever let it hit the ground,” Bobby said. “We unload it by hand, and then we hang it in the drying shed by hand.”

The Isbells hung netting from ceiling to floor in the climate-controlled building and they stand on scaffolding to hang the hemp upside down in the nets. The crop dries for 7-10 days, and it takes two or three cycles to get all of the hemp dried. “It’s like cooking. If you rush it, you don’t get a good end product,” Bobby said.

Once dried, the hemp is stripped by hand, and they collect the finished product in 75- to 100-pound bags. The first year, they loaded up the bags and took them to a processor in Colorado since there weren’t many options in Alabama at the time. Last year, they used a processor in Huntsville.

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The Isbells launched the Baldrock Hemp Farm line of CBD products in February, and the oils, creams and capsules are produced from their hemp by Sustainable CBD in Selma. “We definitely believe in what we’ve got, and we have lots of repeat customers,” said Haley, who designed the label and launched the website, baldrockhemp.com. “It’s a natural product that a lot of people have found relieves anxiety, joint pain and other symptoms.”

The family is some of its own best customers. Bobby III has found it helps him sleep when his body can’t shut down after a full day of physical labor. Bobby’s 87-year-old father uses the cream for joint pain, and Lynn takes it every night. “Sometimes, if I’ve been anxious, I’ll put a dropperful of the lemon flavored oil in my tea, and the anxiousness just goes away.” A family friend with a stressful job said that it helps keep him calm, Bobby said.

Although adding a hemp farm to the demands of poultry farming has been a tremendous undertaking, the Isbells said they are glad they took the leap of faith. “I enjoy it,” Bobby III said. “It gives me something to do in the summer.” The comment doesn’t surprise his wife.

“They can’t sit still,” Haley said of her husband and father-in-law. “If they hadn’t done hemp, they would have found something else.”

Gateway Community Garden

Growing a bounty to serve others

Story by Carol Pappas
Photos by Carol Pappas
and Graham Hadley and Glenn Wilson

Much like the single seed planted years earlier that grows into the towering oak tree offering shade and comfort to next generations, today’s Pell City Gateway Community Garden thrives as an example of what dogged determination, a patch of dirt and a smattering of seeds can become.

In 2013, a handful of Pell City citizens envisioned a garden for their community. In that group were Merry and Dave Bise, Renee Lilly, Lisa Phillips, Kelly and Sheree Wilkerson, and other community volunteers. Taking root on the old Avondale Mills property, the garden on a quarter-acre plot was small, but productive – just like their dream. Early help came from Pell City Civitans, which provided the nonprofit status they needed for grants, and the City of Pell City, which provided the patch of earth they needed to grow their bounty, and it began to sprout.

Seven years later – in a new location thanks to St. Simon Peter Episcopal Church – and a growing army of volunteers, Gateway Community Garden is reaping the benefits of what it sowed by helping others.

Early mornings and late afternoons nearly all year long, you’ll find a group of “do-gooders,” city dwellers on a mission, toiling in the dirt, nurturing their crops to feed the hungry.

Row upon row tells the story of their bounty – potatoes, okra, squash, bell peppers, corn, tomatoes, butter peas and pinkeye purple hull peas in summer. Collard greens, cabbage, turnip greens, broccoli, sweet potatoes and more okra emerge in the fall.

Fruit trees and bushes abound – apples, blueberries, blackberries – a future dream now in its fledgling stage. An irrigation system is in place. A greenhouse, courtesy of Master Gardeners, has been erected. And on any given day when the sun is out, chances are these gardeners are, too, watching over their harvest like protective parents tending to their young.

Debbie Smith, a longtime gardener and board member, calls it “God’s blessing. It is always amazing to me that you plant a seed in the ground and get this beautiful plant that feeds others.”

Her experience as a gardener is rewarding in the way she is able to use her education background to teach others how to plant, grow and harvest. She describes the end result – whether it’s someone enjoying the garden’s solitude and beauty or actually laboring in the soil as a “healing and restorative garden. It works on both ends.”

Worth Barham, project manager who fellow volunteers have labeled ‘CEO,’ agrees. “It’s a wonderful experience,” he said, noting that the whopping two tons of food grown there so far have made their way to good homes in the Pell City Christian Love Pantry, Pell City Senior Citizens Center and Lincoln Food Pantry.

“Everything is based on the wonderful volunteers we have,” Barham said. Bringing different skillsets to the organization, they have been able to write grants, develop an educational component, bring community organizations into the fold, design the garden’s physical future and of course, grow food for the needy. St. Clair Co-op has provided many of the plants. David Wadsworth brings his tractor to clear the ground for planting, and Master Gardener Tom Terry tills the soil.

“Without the grants we have received, we would not be where we are today,” Barham said. “Without our volunteers, we would have no organization at all.”

Lisa Phillips became involved early on – first as a Pell City Civitan, then as a gardener. In addition to the Civitans lending their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to the fundraising effort, the club has provided access for the handicapped and special needs, like accessible paths for wheelchairs and lower tables for produce.

To be a part of it has been “a great feeling,” said Phillips. “And I think it has been great for the community.”

“I am awestruck at what we have been able to accomplish with a small group of folks,” said Linda Tutwiler, another board member. Volunteers only number a dozen or so on a regular basis. “I don’t think any of us envisioned what we could accomplish in such a short time.”

In 2017, it moved from Avondale to a 5-to-6-acre plot given to them to use by the Episcopal church across the street. And that is when the garden grew to its next level and beyond. First helped by a Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham grant and then a Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama contribution as part of its Sacred Places grant program, the garden began to really take shape.

Three years ago, Barham said, the garden grew 820 pounds of fresh produce to give to those in need in Pell City and St. Clair County. Last year, it was 3,600 pounds. Today, their harvest tips the scales at 4,000 pounds.

Nearby is a newly constructed nature trail. A handcrafted, oversized sitting bench underneath the trees welcomes one and all as a place for quiet reflection. A journal to record thoughts is there, as is a miniature reading library. Peace, tranquility and reflection are key to this sacred space.

A greenhouse is home to trees that grow Meyer lemons and will soon grow plants from seed. A shed painted with brightly colored sunflowers holds tools of the trade and a work log, where volunteers record their hours for grants.

On a Saturday morning in November, a group of Scouts marveled at gardener Laura Wilson’s lessons of how sweet potatoes are grown, how to pick a turnip or cabbage leaf. They ran through garden patches with prize in hand – a freshly picked turnip – with smiles almost as wide as they were tall.

They earned a badge that day. But more important, gardeners will quickly tell you, is they learned the value of growing a garden with your own hands and what it can provide in life – not just for you, but for others.

Renee Lilly, one of the founders, talked of the personal rewards reaped in those lessons for her and her husband. “It’s a wonderful experience for me. My husband is involved, too. It’s a great thing for the community, and I’m excited the word is finally getting out,” she said, encouraging others to join them in the effort. “It really does take a village.”

Tomato Time!

Chandler Mountain comes alive
in a sea of red at Smith Farm

Story by Elaine Hobson Miller

Photos by Graham Hadley

It’s tomato-picking time again on Chandler Mountain, the unofficial Tomato Capital of Alabama, where 800 acres of St. Clair County soil are devoted to this popular food every year. For several weeks now farmers have been pulling them from the plants, packing them up and selling them to distributors and the public alike.

Picking got off to a late start this year at Smith Tomato, a fixture on Chandler Mountain for more than 35 years. Cloudy days and excessive rain pushed back the picking, which usually begins the first of July, by a week. Coronavirus pandemic permitting, it will end with a big fall festival sometime in October.

“We’re only picking 1,500 to 2,000 boxes a day now, where we’re normally doing 4,000-6,000,” Smith Tomato co-owner Kista Smith-Lowe said in mid-July. “We pick every other day because it’s more productive. We get twice as many in less time because they don’t all ripen at once.”

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Picking began on July 10, and they sold out of their Number One grade the first day. “The Number Ones have no imperfections, while our Number Twos have some flaws, but they taste the same,” Kista (pronounced Keesta) said. Distributors picked up 1,500 boxes, each weighing 25 pounds, that first day, but that’s far less than a normal day’s pickings.

The Smiths grow more than 100 of the 800 acres of tomatoes planted on Chandler Mountain each year. The exact amount varies because all fields aren’t the same size, and they rotate the fields. “We have about 200 acres all together,” Kista said. “We sell directly to the public and to distributors or middlemen, who then sell to grocery stores, etc., in Florida, Texas, Mississippi, even as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.”

Kista’s parents, Leroy and Kathy Smith, purchased the Smith farm 35 years ago from her uncle, who started growing tomatoes in the 1960s. The Smith kids have added to it and now have about 200 acres, plus some leased land. “We lost both of our parents in 2018,” Kista said. She and her two brothers run the place. Kista is in charge of bookkeeping and public sales, Phillip handles irrigation and fertilization and Chad handles spraying for pests. A crew leader answers to Chad. The Smiths were raised working with their parents in the fields, and Kista’s two daughters, ages 19 and 14, are already helping in sales, restocking and in the vegetable garden.

Their parents probably grew about half what the Smiths do now because it’s easier to grow tomatoes today than it used to be. “They had to do lots more field work by hand,” Kista said. “Daddy put quality before quantity, and that’s the way we were raised. I’m super proud of what he accomplished.”

Even though harvest time lasts only three or four months, tomato farming is a year-round affair, with only a couple of months off in late fall and early winter. The process begins in February when they work on the equipment. During March and April, they break ground. In April, they start planting, and from March to October, they’re staking, tying, setting fall plants out and picking. After each setting, all the tomato plants are staked and tied at least four times.

When October rolls around, the guys clean all the tractors and winterize the equipment. Their only down time is November through January, but even then, they might be placing orders. And that’s not counting the time they’re planting cover crops like hemp, wheat, turnips and other greens for winter, to put nutrients back into the soil. “Early in the year, we spend eight to 10 hours a day working this farm,” Kista says. “Four months of year, we have 14- to 16-hour days.”

The field process starts with plowing, using a machine that digs deep into the soil and brings it up in clods. Next comes fertilizing, using spreaders pulled by tractors. Then a chisel plow with gripper feet rips the ground and loosens it, and a tiller with rotating tines turns those clods into fine dirt. A plastic machine (that’s what they call it) pushes dirt into piles to form rows, puts down drip lines (plastic tubing, part of the irrigation system), fumigates, then covers the rows with plastic sheeting. “Our dad was the first farmer on Chandler Mountain to use a plastic machine,” Kista said. The fumigation chemicals go away in two weeks, before they put down the plants. A plant setter pokes holes in the plastic and drops water into those holes.

“Our migrant workers put the plants in by hand,” Kista said. “It’s much faster than machines can do it.”

The cost to grow tomatoes is about $10,000 per acre, and that’s before picking. It costs another $3.50 per box to pick, sort and grade them, so that’s about $7,000 in boxes and packing per acre. “We strive for 2,000 boxes of tomatoes per acre per season,” Chad said. “We have had as many as 3,000, but 2,000 is our feel-good mark.”

They wait until after April 15 to start planting to be sure they’ve seen the last frost. “We’ve had to pull up thousands of plants and re-plant due to a late frost,” Kista said. “Some companies put Styrofoam cups over them to protect them from unexpected frost, but that’s costly.” Even if the tomatoes live through the cold, it stunts them, and they won’t yield as much. “They’ll be fewer and smaller and more prone to disease,” Chad said.

Theyput about 400,000 plants into the ground each year, buying the seeds and having a plant grower raise them until they are about four weeks old. “We plant, stake, string and pick by hand, with a crew of about 50 people,” Kista said. “The tomatoes areprocessed in the field, meaning they are sized, graded and boxed there.”

“There’s so much technology now, andsome larger processors have machines that can detect size and grade the tomatoes,” Chad said. “Here, we used to have machines that graded them. We would put them on belts that had different sized holes in them. We went to grading in the field because it’s better production.”

Workers were picking about a third of their normal crop in mid-July, but sunshine and an upcoming full moon were sure to help. “A full moon when tomatoes are ripening is like 24 hours of sunlight,” said Chad. “It speeds up the process.”

“It’s very tiring but very exciting work,” said Kista. “Harvest is the most exciting time, especially when we pick more than ever for one day. Sore hands and backs, from picking, lifting, repairing tractors, planting are occupational hazards for us and the crew, too.”

Theyfight worms and insects that can kill the plants, like aphids and white flies, using insecticides and fungicides that are EPA-regulated. About a third of their chemicals are organic. Chad figures fertilizers and other chemicals and the plastic sheeting and tubing probably cost $400,000 per year. “Our profits may be four or five cents a pound after costs,” he said. “That would make us a good living.”

Your turn to pick

In August, when a field has only a couple of thousand tomatoes left, the Smiths turn it into a U-Pick farm, allowing the public to pick their own tomatoes at a cheaper cost than buying them by the box or basket. “It’s not productive enough for the migrants to pick at that stage, because they generally pick 5,000-6,000 tomatoes per day,” Kista said. “Their record is 8,000.”

They usually end the season with a big fall festival the first or second weekend of October, depending upon the Bama football schedule. “We grow pumpkins and sell those and cornstalks and other outdoor decorations like acorn squash and mums,” Kista said. “We have face painting and vendors who sell food and arts and crafts. Last year, we had close to 1,000 people show up. It’s hard to count because we don’t sell tickets. It’s free.” She said they aren’t sure whether they’re having the festival or not this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, but urged readers to check their Facebook page for updates.

Tomatoes aren’t the only vegetables (or fruit, depending on the definition you prefer) that the Smiths sell. They grow melons, cucumbers, green beans, yellow squash, zucchini and grape tomatoes, and they buy potatoes and onions, jams and jellies out ofthe Birmingham Farmer’s Market, to sell to the general public out of their warehouse. That warehouse is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, during tomato season. They’re on Loop Road, just off Gallant Road, in Steele. (That’s 4575 Loop Road, Steele, for your GPS.)

They get anywhere from 25 to 100 customers a day, who buy for home canning and cooking. Customers can also pick up a T-shirt or baseball cap emblazoned with the Smith Tomato logo. It’s worth a trip to their warehouse just to see all the signs and symbols hanging on the walls and from the ceilings, like Farmall tractor advertisements, old license plates and kiddie pedal tractors, including one Chad drove as a youngster.

Looking ahead, the Smiths are contemplating opening a diner in two or three years. It will feature fresh, home-cooked vegetables and some sandwiches and lots of tomato dishes. Then folks can make a day trip out of shopping for fresh vegetables and eating them, too.

Now that’s something to look forward to!

Follow Smith Tomato on Facebook and online at smithtomatollc.com.