What is in this article?:
- How Steve Brister produces high-yielding tomatoes in the Mississippi hills.
- His plot set-up, tips and recipe for success.
Brister, a Yazoo City resident, is a retiree from Mississippi Chemical and moved to 160 acres bought in the late 1970s. With his wife, Barbara, he raises commercial-grade feeder calves on much of that land. They also have several recreational areas; a couple of lakes, deer and turkey hunting.
The land is up in the hills just three miles from prime Delta farmland. The bottoms are productive, containing the same rich dirt of the cropland up the road. The combination of hills and trees makes for some pretty scenery – especially at this time of the year with the leaves turning.
“I’ve been associated with agriculture my whole life,” says Brister. “I spent a lot of time as a boy with my grandfather, a truck farmer and cattleman. He worked in Hinds County raising peppers and tomatoes.
“You could say that three generations of my family are responsible for coming up with tomato-growing ‘recipe’ we use.”
And it’s the tomato-growing recipe that Brister’s neighbors and friends always ask for.
So you took the recipe from your grandfather and tweaked it?
“It’s actually an amalgamation from my family and friends. It’s been put together over the years. But I certainly learned a lot from my grandfather and my dad.
“You can pick a tomato when it has a white ‘star’ on the bottom of it. That’s what truck farmers look for before pulling them. If a green tomato has a white star, it will go ahead and, in a week or two, mature to a good fruit. Without that white star, it will never turn.”
Brister is quick to give credit. It was actually his step-father-in-law who came up with the tomato “cages” he now uses. “I grow tomatoes in an 18-inch dog-wire cage that’s five-feet tall. There are windows cut into them and you can reach in and gather the fruit.”
The beauty of the cages is that early on the deer can’t get to the plants. Deer really love the young, tender leaves on those plants.
“The other thing about the cages is if you’re lucky enough to get big fruit, the big tomatoes will lean against the wire. That means they don’t fall off the vines or tear up the junction where it connects to the main stalk.
“I grow my vines very thick. We plant them close together and I’ve been experimenting with not pulling any suckers.”
Why did Brister begin counting his tomatoes in 2013?
“It goes back to last season. In 2012, we only had 17 plants but we estimated over 1,000 tomatoes had come off them. So, I wanted to follow the tomato numbers very closely this year.”
His two plots are hemmed in with cross-ties. “I bring in new soil – only the depth of the cross-tie lying flat. That’s all that’s needed because tomatoes don’t grow deep, the roots stay shallow.
“I’ve tried planting them deep, some folks advocate for that. But I’ve never found that to be successful.”
Brister likes for his tomato plants to take off within four or five days of planting. “If it doesn’t do that, you won’t have a great plant. So, you have to plant it shallow in the ground and watch it go. A tomato plant can grow 6 to 8 inches per day if you give it the right nutrients and water.
“So, I tried jamming the plants up close just to see if it would make a difference to shade the roots. July and August in Mississippi is doggone hot. At the same time, tomatoes need to catch nine to 10 hours of sun a day. However, that much sun in 100-degree, no-rain, Mississippi weather will wither them up quick. That’s why I decided to leave all the leaves on the plants – to shade the roots.”
At the same time, Brister found another benefit of the practice: shading the fruit. “You keep the fruit shaded and out of direct sunlight, and you’ll have bigger tomatoes. Sunlight right on the fruit in July and August makes it go ahead and mature and the tomato won’t be as big as could be.”
Brister pulls no suckers off the plants. “Almost all the tomato-growers will tell you to pull the suckers after the first set on the bottom. But I don’t do that. If you fertilize and water them properly, you can support the fruit and the suckers.”