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Black From Tula & The Mortgage Lifter—Part II

By Tom Poland
web posted August 22, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH –  In the early 1930s, Marshall Cletis Byles was going through a tough time in his hometown of Logan, West Virginia. He ran a small repair shop at the bottom of a mountain famous for overheating trucks attempting the long grade up. He got a lot of business from trucks that never made it to the top, thus the moniker “Radiator Charlie.”

The Great Depression was making its presence known and Byles decided to develop a large tomato families could feast on. Though he had no training in plants he knew what he liked. He and started with a German Johnson, Beefsteak, an unknown Italian variety, and an unknown English variety. He grew plants from each variety and planted three Beefsteaks, three of the Italian variety, and three of the English variety in a circle. In the center, he planted the German Johnson.

Using a baby syringe, he cross-pollinated the German Johnson with pollen from nine other plants in the circle. He saved the seeds and planted them the following year. He selected the best seedlings and planted them in the middle of a circle, surrounded by the other seedlings. He repeated this strategy for six years, cross-pollinating the strongest plants in the center with pollen from plants in the circle. Figuring he had a pretty good tomato, he sold the seedlings for $1.00 each, a nice sum in the 1940s. People would drive hundreds of miles to buy his seeds.

Most heirlooms trace their heritage to the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio. Yes, Ohio. They do well there because of the climate. Down here, heat and humidity are heirlooms’ enemies. Derrick’s do well he says because he nurtures them.
In spring, Derrick puts in twenty hours a week. He digs holes, plants, and lays down mulch. He prefers rye or wheat straw. Such mulch cuts down on weeds. He gets his mulch from Stanley Shumpert, Lexington County’s last dairy farmer and his uncle.
Isolating tomatoes can reduce cross-pollination but wind and bees will still cross-pollinate them. Tomatoes are self-pollinators. Each plant has both sexes needed for pollination.

He grows plants organically, though he points out that he isn’t “certified organic.” He uses fish fertilizer on the plants. With the heavy lifting behind him, Derrick works six and a half hours a week during the growing season. When he’s ready to plant them in water with a touch of bleach to kill any pathogens present. A week before Valentine’s Day he puts the seeds in grow soil beneath grow lights. “After a month, they go into bigger pots,” said Derrick. “The first of April they can go into the soil.”

Derrick plants one variety per row. “I go to the middle of the row and pick out the biggest, healthiest tomatoes for seeds. Once he collects the seeds, he puts them in a cup of water in a jar. He shakes it to break up the gel that encases and protects the seeds. The next step is to place the seeds on paper towels where they dry out. When they’re good and dry into the refrigerator they go until planting time.

The nurturing season. He plants marigolds as a natural pesticide for nematodes. “I haven’t used any insecticides at all this year,” says Derrick. Marigolds deliver other bonuses. They attract wasps as pollinators and repel deer.

“An heirloom tomato,” says Derrick, “is a heritage variety that has been lost to hybridization that’s red, round, “perfect,” and tasteless. This prompts Derrick to quote the late Andy Rooney. “The federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato that is perfect in every respect, except that you can’t eat it.”
Derrick made a good decision when he decided to plant heirloom tomatoes and not peanuts.

Consider him a bit of a preservationist. “The benefit of the heirloom is remembering the past and securing the future. The seed will be the same plant next year. When you’re dead and gone, your family can enjoy the exact same thing you enjoyed. We as a society by preserving our heritage produce in a fast-changing world we give others a never-changing world. Something that stands the test of time.”

Derrick Gunter’s Fried Green Tomatoes Recipe
Any green tomato
Salt for 45 minutes to draw water out
Slice average thickness
Sprinkle with salt
Coat with mix half self-rising flour and half fish fry mi
Fry in vegetable or peanut oil

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