Turning a pine barrens into a tomato and watermelon farm

Picture a pine plantation with soil depleted by decades of pine production and soil acidified by pine needles.  Then imagine the most productive tomato and watermelon farm in the same fields.  That’s what was accomplished by the wisdom of a spry now eighty-eight year old man. We almost missed it.  His hospitable county agent drove past some open fields and said, “Now there’s a different sort of farm” as we headed to yet another poultry/cattle/timber operation in Winn Parish, Louisiana.

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He didn’t let us stop at the farm then, but something about that farm pulled us back the next day. We drove mile after mile through pine plantations to get back to his farm.  Sometimes it seemed like all 950 square miles of Winn Parish, Louisiana, are filled with pines.

Finally, we came to the intersection of 126 and 105 and the land opened up. Huey Pierce White (named after Winn Parish’s most famous son, Huey P. Long) came out to greet us and immediately urged us to hop into his ATV for a tour of his fields.  The first thing he told us was how bad pines were for soil.  When he bought his land, it was covered with pines.  The pines had sucked the nutrients out of the soil and made it acidic.  But Huey knew he could bring it back. He’s convinced his black, sandy soil will raise anything you want to raise if you get the pines off and treat it right.

He chopped down and sold all the pines and pulled up the stumps.  Then he laid out his beds.  He has wide alleys between his beds so he can spray in from the sides. No wheels have touched his beds since he laid them out.  The compaction is all between the beds.  The beds are fluffy, soft and have high tilth.

We spent the rest of the day exploring what he called the art of tomato and watermelon production. Our conversation covered his life from dropping out of school in the 6th grade to help his family when his father died, through trips all over the world (Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Jerusalem), to six years as a prison chaplain in Cajun country and then ending up in Winn Parish Louisiana to satisfy his need to farm.

He’s tried peppers, cattle and goats but none of them were as fascinating or profitable as tomatoes and watermelons.  He has double the yield of most tomato farmers—18 pounds per plant including some one and a half pound tomatoes. He loves yellow watermelon because of the demand. Too many people are selling red watermelons.

Huey says that climate change makes irrigation crucial to vegetable and fruit production.  You can’t count on the rains these days, even though Winn Parish averages almost four inches a month during the growing season. He loves drip tape and irrigates in the evening because his black plastic mulch and drip tape will heat up too much during the day.

A second crucial practice on Huey’s farm is rotation. Tomatoes and watermelons are not closely related so they aren’t afflicted with the same pests. Rotation keeps all the pests on both crops from building up.  He does get some disease and when he does he pulls up the plants and burns them.  He also burns his fields at the end of the season to get rid of any disease in the old stalks. Any disease will stay 40 years if you don’t get rid of it.

Here’s the rest of the system which he has fashioned by listening to those with experience and then improving it.

He starts Bella Rosa and Amelia.seed in the greenhouse the second week in February.  He keeps the greenhouse at sixty degrees. If he wants to speed up the growth he puts a light bulb under them.  He likes the soil to be sixty degrees before he transplants.   He doesn’t want his plants to go through any trauma that will stop their growth.

It’s hard to find anyone who wants to work on farm anymore, so he limits his acreage to what he can handle himself with a couple of helpers mostly when planting and transplanting.

Once the plants are growing well in the greenhouse, he prepares land.  His five foot tiller turns the soil fine and fluffy.  In March he mixes 8-24-24 fertilizer and pelletized lime and spreads it on his beds.  Then he puts down drip tape and black plastic.

March is a tricky time of year, he says.  Trees don’t have sap in the winter.  In March the wind rocks the trees and they become like a fuel pump to pull the sap up from the roots.  More people die when the sap starts up, but we don’t know why.

In March he sets up electric fence for watermelons, but animals don’t bother his tomatoes. He gets the fence up early because once coons or armadillos get a taste of watermelons, you won’t be able to keep them out even if you stay out watching all night.  He puts two strands at different heights to catch those varmints.

His goal is to transplant in mid-April, but he watches the pecan trees and hickory nut trees to determine exactly when.  When they start putting out leaves, there won’t be another frost.

When getting ready to set plants, he uses a bulb hole puncher to punch holes every 24 inches. Then he puts in the plant and fills the hole with starter fertilizer (a mix of calcium nitrate, Miracle-Grow and magnesium sulfate.

A week after he transplants he feeds them calcium nitrate through the drip tape with an injector system. It’s like giving a baby his bottle.  They really suck it up and take off.

The calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate (also known as Epsom salts) gives his tomatoes a great taste that everyone notices.  He doesn’t use chicken litter.  Plants pick up anything you put in the ground and he doesn’t like the taste of chicken litter.

As the plants begin growing, he stakes them and runs string around the outside of all the plants in each bed’s two rows.  When they grow eight inches more, he puts in another string around the row. Four strings total is what he needs for his determinate tomatoes.  He has a set of tools so he can keep the line taut working by himself.

He likes to pick his tomatoes himself.  Other folks tend to grab the fruit and mash it.  Or they jerk it off and pull off a whole cluster instead of just the ripe ones.  He’s knows how to pull off selectively.

He harvests as soon as the tomato gets a little color. Once the tomato gets a “star” on bottom will get ripe no matter what.  He’s convinced “vine ripe” is just a sales pitch.  Once it’s mature, it will turn red no matter what with no change in taste.

He gave us a volume or two more of details on his system.  Then we learned about the circuitous route he took to obtain all his knowledge, wisdom and art.  Before Huey got into tomatoes, he owned a saw mill in Texas.  But an encounter with a dozer in the woods crushed his foot and pelvis.  He took a desk job during his rehabilitation and rose up quickly to run the company’s district.  While there he went back to school and then pastored a church and became a prison chaplain for six years south of New Orleans in Cajun country.  In 1992 he came back up to Winn County and began farming.

He finishes our visit by discussing his populist namesake: Huey P. Long, former Governor and Senator.  When Huey Long removed the two dollar poll tax required to vote and began an old age pension, his parents decided to name him Huey.  Governor Long gave his parents a silver cup with Huey Pierce engraved on it.

As we left he apologized for talking so much and not learning more from us.  Then he sent us off with one last aphorism: wisdom is knowing how, when and where to apply knowledge.

We’d met a wise man who taught us much more than we can write here.  And we plan to go back to his farm and learn more. Finding a wise old farmer and learning from him is just about the best way to spend your time.

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