Yankee Doodle Tomato Man
Meade County lays claim to more miles of Ohio River shoreline than any of the 25 Kentucky counties along the northern border of the Commonwealth.
It’s not that Meade County is so large (305 square miles compared to Jefferson County’s 386 square miles), it’s the way the Ohio River makes a triple loop, wrapping its wide, winding arms around Meade.
Downstream from the county seat, Brandenburg, there are Big Bend, Oxbow Bend, and Little Bend. The Ohio River flows like a grand ribbon, wreathing woodlands of cedar and white oak, and long bottom lands with names like Paradise. The beauty and majesty of the panorama are Shangri-la, but little realities are there awaiting discovery.
Mt. Hope Methodist Church and its cemetery sit atop Big Bend, where names live on-Noble, Garver, and Crawford-recalling 19th-century pioneering families. Some sandstone markers have no inscriptions, an indication that prosperity was often elusive. The church with its red roof and tiny steeple is presently vacant. The six pews on one side, eight pews on the opposite side, and the facing four choir pews in front are places where people have sought spiritual release from earthly heartaches.
Down the road a ways, 74-year-old James “Buck” Terry wonders aloud if he should go up there and mow a little grass, because he has family buried at Mt. Hope cemetery.
Buck is one of those quiet Kentuckians who speaks slow, but when the words come out, they’re clear as drops of water falling softly on his garden.
“Just growed tomatoes all my life.”
“What’s the secret to growing tomatoes?”
“Stake ’em, tie ’em, and sucker ’em."
“How many do you set out?”
“Eight thousand, ready on the first of July. Seventy-two days from time of setting.”
“I thought May 10 was the safest time to set out tomatoes.”
“Set mine out April 14.”
“What about late frost?”
“Burn old hay rolls. Smoke takes care of the frost.”
“Go by the moon?”
"Yessir. Sign of Cancer best time. Pisces good too. Some signs won’t grow.”
Walking into Buck Terry’s seeding shed is a trip into a promised land of ingenuity. His father was a good carpenter, but Buck’s friends accuse the son of shimming everything. Piece of wood here, extended board there, homemade with an old iron barrel for the working part, staves of dogwood and sassafras for more experiments with tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes.
There are corn, beans, onions, and lettuce, but tomatoes reign supreme at Buck Terry’s Elysian fields up there on top of Big Bend.
In a conversation about agriculture and how people might have a fighting chance to relate to it, Buck begins by saying, “I don’t owe nobody nothing.”
He acknowledges that he might have missed out on some opportunities along the way, but you can sense a nice clean smell to the idea of not being in debt, especially when you’re in your mid-70s and you have been through two heart attacks.
The conversation comes around to “family farm” and “alternative crop,” and Buck is of a mind that whatever anybody chooses to call it, the secret is in individual sunup to sundown work, a passion for the crop, and the ability to find somebody willing to pay for quality. Anything else is whistling past the cemetery.
Buck and his wife, Rosalyn, have raised five children, three boys and two girls.
Some might call Buck the tomato king, but he’d probably prefer a simpler title-the tomato man most likely.
Buck says, “I want you to have these eight Super Steak tomato plants. They’ll weigh 2 to 3 pounds, and they eat real good.”
It’s nice to be remembered for something as noble as a mortal American with a strong hoe, a willing back, and a desire to use it to make things grow and become both beautiful and mouth-watering.
So, here’s to the Terry tomato! A tasty toast for the 4th of July!