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October 18, 2010   Email to Friend 

OYFF: Cullman County's Calverts Know How To Make A Good Tomato Sandwich
By Darryal Ray

Jeremy Calvert, son James and wife Julie have learned that growing good crops is only part of the equation in successful farming.
To make a really good tomato sandwich, Jeremy Calvert says you have to start with a "good locally grown tomato."

Of course, it just so happens that he has some.

In fact, tomatoes are one of the main crops he grows on his Cullman County farm in the Bremen community. So when he heard how a Tomato Sandwich Day event had been successful at a market in a neighboring county, Calvert figured it could work at the Walker County Farmers Market, too.

Mentioning the possibility of such a promotion to Matthew Durdin, an area organization director with the Alabama Farmers Federation, was all it took. "Matthew took it and ran with it," said Jeremy who, along with wife Julie and 7-year-old son James, is among the finalists in the Federation's annual Outstanding Young Farm Family contest. Before he knew it, Jeremy was up to his neck in tomatoes -- and customers -- at the Jasper market as the Walker County Farmers Federation joined in to make Tomato Sandwich Day a roaring success. In three hours, from 8 to 11 a.m., Durdin and Federation members sliced up 100 pounds of tomatoes, serving about 350 sandwiches -- 115 per hour.

"We've been going to that market for eight years, and I've never seen that many people there," said Jeremy. "There were people parked on the grass, people parked at the back of the market, and people trying to get in our stall ... It worked out well. We picked a good day. There were a lot of farmers there, and we all had a lot of product. We were still feeling the effects of that day two weeks later. It was really a good thing."

It was the kind of team effort that is part of everyday life at the Calverts' farm, a 20-acre operation that also includes strawberries, cabbage, collards, onions, peppers, corn, peas, beans, squash and other crops, along with two broiler houses.

"There are no office jobs here -- everything is hands on," says Jeremy who depends on Julie to help plant, harvest, pack and sell all the fruits and vegetables on the family farm. Even James, whose fascination with tractors extends well beyond the 100 or so toy ones in his collection to his dad's real ones, helps out wherever he can.

This year, in particular, has been a busy one at the Jasper market. "It's very rare when all of your canning tomatoes, the culls, are bought up. But this year we saw more people canning and more people freezing stuff than we have in 10 years," said Jeremy. "I never thought it would be like that again, that it would take a drastic change for people to go back to that, but we saw more of that than we have in a long, long time. I believe it's all due to the economy. You can see it in the way people spend their money. They want to make that dollar go as far as it can."

He also believes fewer people are eating out, and preparing meals at home instead. "How many households do you know of that eats potatoes in one form or fashion every day? It's just not that way anymore," said Jeremy. "The younger women don't cook. A lot of them work, and pick up something on the way home. But we saw changes in that this year, too. Now, a lot of women are asking Julie for recipes. They'll ask, 'How do you cook this?' We had shelled peas in quart bags in a cooler the other day, and this woman asked, 'How do you cook that?' I said, 'All you've got to do is throw that in the pot. You don't have to shell it or anything. Just boil it until they get done.' She said, 'Really?!' She had no clue. She bought 'em and came back a week later and said she loved 'em."

While their thrice-weekly trips to market kept the family busy, they have also taught them a great deal about what works -- and what doesn't. "When a woman comes up to your stall to buy something, she doesn't want to see somebody like me -- I'm too ugly," Jeremy said with a smile. "I need to be in the back packing it up, and letting these women sell. "When someone comes to that stall to buy, it needs to be the same person there every time. When there's somebody different, it just blows their mind. It just messes everything up," he added. "I don't know if it's just dependability, knowing who they are going to deal with or what it is."

"There are some who won't buy from the girl who helps us," said Julie. "They'll come to me every time. They'll wait until I'm done with another customer. Even if she doesn't have a customer, they'llwait until I'm done and come to me. I don't know why because they can buy the same thing from her."

Sometimes, this brand of farmers market sales psychology is reflected in the planting decisions as well.

Two years ago, Jeremy planted 3.5 acres of peach trees -- and picked around 300 baskets off of roughly 390 trees. "We were real pleased with that," he said. "For a two-year-old tree, I was extremely pleased."

He guesses he's tried at least 20 varieties of tomatoes, but doesn't grow heirloom varieties because they bruise easily and don't produce well. "It's a high-end thing," Jeremy said of heirlooms. "The people who come to our market are just regular people -- you're not going to sell them a $10 cantaloupe or $15 organic chicken. They'll just laugh at you."

The next addition, he said, could be scuppernongs. "I believe I could sell those without any trouble," he said. "But then, we are strung out with so many different things I don't know how many more new crops I can take on and take care of it all."

He does know, however, he won't be increasing the size of his watermelon patch. "I'm not going to raise many watermelons," said Jeremy. "A lady will tote a cantaloupe, but she will not tote a 40-pound watermelon. You WILL tote it to her car. It doesn't matter if her car is two blocks away -- you are going to tote it to her car. If you are going to sell watermelons, somebody has to be devoted just to that watermelon truck. Watermelons take up too much room, and we've got too much other stuff. As long as they'll tote cantaloupes, I'm going to raise cantaloupes."



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