By Maylon Rice
With the 2014 version of the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival in the rear view mirror, the memories of the old tomato auction shed flood back in my mind.
The old-style auction out in West Warren where every farmer, big, small and in between pulled up in their vehicles to the raised concrete dock and waited on the “inspectors” to ask for samples from their trucks, cars and yes, even a horse drawn wagon or two for display.
The baskets, as I first remember them, were split white oak baskets, bushel baskets, if you will, where the packed tomatoes – that is tomatoes wrapped in a thin, almost opaque tissue like paper were nestled.
The real trick to “wrapping” a round basket of tomatoes was to work in a circle, starting at the bottom packing ones way to a smooth level at the top of the basket where a lid or cross-hatch version of the same material as that of the basket would be levered onto the top of the bushel basket.
A finely wrapped basket of Bradley County pink tomatoes is a sight to behold.
Some folks can wrap fast, that once was a contest at the Tomato Festival, but sadly the tissue wrapped tomato has gone the way of the public auction… just a Pastime to write about these days.
Later on came the paper/cardboard boxes. A year of two later these boxes were wax covered cardboard to allow the refrigerated tomatoes to be cold shipped to points north and the paper boxes hold up during shipment.
But the excitement every day at the open tomato auction was thrilling.
After the “inspectors” graded your tomatoes into No. 1’s, No. 2’s, No. 3’s, Ripes, and Unclassified or Combinations grade.
The lowest grade Culls.
The No 1 grade was best.
Every farmer wanted to deliver No. 1’s as the highest auction price was inevitably brought for those Bradley County pinks.
Each seller of tomatoes would have their own table, where samples of the tomatoes were placed for the buyers’ inspection.
The break from working in the fields from daylight until the middle of the day was often a welcome time for everyone. Most everyone washed up, put on a clean shirt and came to the auction, if the picking, packing and all the other farm work would be postponed until the day’s pickings was sold and some cash money was received. If the entire family could come to the auction – they came.
About 1 or 2 p.n. each day the auction would begin.
The late Corbett Merle, a cowboy hat wearing cattle buyer who knew most everyone, would about 2 p.m. each afternoon power up a hand-held microphone. He did so in a slow, deliberate Southern drawl with a little greeting, a joke of two as he and the tomato buyers would go walking a dedicated path around the tables from farmer to farmer.
There was a method to bidding on the prices for tomatoes.
For example: Merle would sing into the microphone, “Mr. Jones has 20 boxes of No. 1 tomatoes, let’s start em out at $6, a box. Do I have $6 and a dime, now 6-20, how about 6 and a quarter…” And so would go the dance, until the highest price had been reached.
Once a buyer settled on the high price, Merle would sing out in a loud voice, Sold 20 boxes $6.45 to Landsaw.”
And a slip of paper would be passed to the farmer instructing him or her which dock to deliver the 20 boxes of No. 1 tomato. Upon delivery a check would be cut right there for the farmer.
There was some fun to be had too.
All your farm friends were there. Cold soda pop and sometimes the smell of hamburger or barbeque from the nearby Corral would be calling your name.
And the excitement of know that all your hard work was going to bring a high price was thrilling.
Some farmers late in the season, when the tension of making the crop were done and the supply was dwindling down, would goad the buyers with good natured ribbing, such as “You know Wayne (Landsaw of Joplin, Mo.,) them Detroit folks sure like my tomatoes.”
And Landsaw, a veteran buyer who knew most of the famers, might shoot back.
“Yeah, they liked them more when they were just $4 a box, not $5 a box.”
But when the crop ran long, sometimes, the buyers would not purchase the No. 3, combination grades or the culls. Just no market but for the best as the supply chain was full of tomatoes.
Farmers would leave with tomatoes on their trucks headed back home to give them to the neighbors, can the tomatoes themselves or feed the oversupply to the hogs.
Many a kid in Bradley County worked at the tomato market... next week I’ll write a Pastime about packing those 18-wheelers for Wayne Landsaw one summer…