Stakes Are High for This Tomato Man
Ben Bulloch doesn’t mind the heat — a good thing, since he grows tomatoes, and tomatoes love heat.
They swell, they redden, they flourish in the Lawrence-of-Arabia sun blazing down on Bulloch’s gardens on U.S. 15-501 near the Moore-Hoke county line.
That would be his roadside stand next to the house flying a Confederate flag, across from the eternal yard sale.
That would be Ben in a baseball cap, weathered jeans and long-sleeved shirt (“no melanoma for me”) replenishing the pile under a hand-lettered “Vine-Ripened Tomatoes” sign. Each tomato has been weighed and priced with a tiny sticker. Until recently, he used an old-fashioned balance scale. Payment is by the honor system. Regulars walk across the yard to the Bullochs’ ranch house, where Ben’s wife, Hazel, fills special orders.
Tomatoes are coming on strong. The warmest May in memory hastened the crop.
Some customers like their tomatoes firm, with a hint of green. Others prefer succulent overripe canners. Bulloch’s got jumbos, big boys, small ones plus okra and squash to stew with his (as pronounced by a true Southerner) tuMAYtuhs.
But, surprisingly, all are Big Beef, a recent variety. Eighty-five-year-old Bulloch is the only heirloom in sight. He seems oblivious to cult-worship surrounding anything tastier than the pinkish cue balls sold year-round. He an’t be bothered with farmers’ markets, which take time and cut profits. He’s not interested in contracting with fancy restaurants, either.
He doesn’t have to. He sells nearly 200 pounds a day, seven days a week, rain or shine, from late May until whenever, priced at $1.30 per pound.
“They’re what I’m used to, what I grew up with,” says longtime customer Rachel Byrd, of Pinebluff, picking up her order on a stifling Saturday afternoon. “If I can get it from Ben, I know it’s been grown well.”
No wonder he’s been dubbed The Tomato Man.
And, although Bulloch shuns the title, he plays the part.
In fact, folks who want the back story need only cancel their afternoon plans, tune in his Georgia drawl and ask a leading question.
Warning: This homespun horticulturist is a salty raconteur and savvy businessman who graduated from Georgia Tech at the top of his class in textile engineering.
More Than Meets the Eye
“There’s never been a time I didn’t grow something,” begins the cotton farmer’s son.
Recollections stretch back to the hardscrabble 1930s when his mama let her boy pick butter beans. “Just the fat horses,” she instructed. Tomatoes were basic — nothing to swoon over.
“They tasted like fresh tomatoes,” he says. “There wasn’t many in the stores back then.”
No need in rural Georgia because if you didn’t grow them, your neighbor surely did.
Bulloch, still in his teens, was drafted during the height of World War II. A fixer by nature, he served as a sheet metal mechanic on an aircraft maintenance ship in the Pacific, repairing bullet holes.
After the war, the scrawny 110-pounder worked in cotton mills and railroad shops but wasn’t strong enough to get ahead doing physical labor. Now married with a baby, Bulloch (aided by the government) followed the education option, even though it meant attending junior college before matriculating at Georgia Tech.
“My degree was an end, not a beginning,” he says. “I mostly used it to be obnoxious. I’ve fired plenty of bosses.”
Bulloch worked in J.P. Stevens textile plants, rising to manager. But he balked when a promotion required relocating to New Jersey.
“I was born in the South, and I’ll die in the South,” Bulloch told the company. “North Carolina is as far north as I’ll go.”
Ben and Hazel Bulloch settled in Aberdeen in 1965, after J.P. Stevens purchased Gulistan Carpet.
“But wherever I went I had a garden,” he says.
He’s grown turnips in window boxes, greens alongside the house he purchased “to get away from Mama.” He gardens solo.
“Every time Hazel goes out in the sun I get doctors’ bills,” he says.
Bulloch’s Aberdeen plot grew into a small farm. Much of the produce he gave away. During high season, he’d take tomatoes, white bread and mayonnaise over to the Gulistan factory.
“The workers loved it – they still remember when I go over there,” he says. “But the guy who ran the concession stand hated me.”
Bulloch retired from engineering in 1991. The ants in his pants demanded projects.
“I’ve never known him not to be doing something,” Hazel Bulloch says. “The only thing he couldn’t manage to do was (give birth to) our three kids.”
Bulloch earned Master Gardener certification — then left the program.
“All they talked about was flowers,” he says.
He branched out to eggplant, zucchini (although unaware that chefs charge top dollar for stuffed blossoms), various beans, watermelon, okra, cucumbers, peppers but not corn.
“It’s not worthwhile, from a business point of view,” he says.
Ten rows of okra yield 20 pounds a day. The same space would produce much less corn, therefore less profit.
“I’m not in it for the money, but I’m not working for free either,” Bulloch says with a chuckle.
However, he does donate produce to local food banks and soup kitchens. Hazel Bulloch says nobody in need is ever turned away empty-handed.
Bulloch hires help only when absolutely necessary. He dismisses the organic movement with: “Half of what they say is organic really isn’t.”
His Big Beefs must be blemish-free. The slightest spot, crack or irregularity brands the tomato a cull (or canner), which he sells at reduced prices. Yellow tomatoes? Purple tomatoes? Misshapen varieties that resemble contemporary sculpture? A terse “No comment.”
Bulloch put up the tiny roadside stand 10 years ago. The honor system works. A few times money left for change disappeared. Now payment is deposited through a slot into a locked box. Customers leave notes, which Hazel saves: “Thank you kindly. The Lord will bless you. Please call when you have okra,” wrote a Mrs. Wanda Crabtree.
Knowledgeable consumers may be surprised that Bulloch grows only Big Beef. The snappy reply: “I don’t have a variety of wives — so why tomatoes?”
He selected this hybrid after studying The Tomato Grower and other catalogs. Big Beefs are disease-resistant and indiscriminate, meaning vines continue to bear fruit until frost rather than producing a limited crop. Some spraying is necessary or else “my friends will help themselves.” The uniformly round tomatoes taste robust but, as an online professional journal reports, without the deep, richly acidic tomato flavor of heirlooms.
That doesn’t worry Bulloch. He’s satisfied with tomato sandwiches, tomato soup, spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes and anything else his wife devises. They don’t bother much with salsa, aren’t familiar with tomato jam and don’t eat winter imports.
Tomatoes, rich in vitamin C and lycopene, appear on most nutritionists’ short list of healthy foods. Growing them has helped keep Bulloch healthy. He is agile, wiry, energetic — a bit too energetic, his son David Bulloch says.
“We worry,” says David. “We keep waiting for him to drop in the 100-degree heat.”
A physician Bulloch consulted for a suspected hernia told him to “go home and act like an 80-year-old.”
Fat chance. Bulloch doesn’t sit still for more than 20 minutes before he’s off on the golf cart, driving over bumps and ruts from field to field. His eyes are clear, his face wizened, his wit sharp, his hands steady “…and my teeth good enough so I can separate the skin from the tomatoes,” he attests with a sly grin.
During the off-season, Bulloch drives 600 miles to buy pecans for resale and, of course, plans the next crop.
“I got a lotta mileage — not like my grandsons. They’re sports models,” he says.
Plant philosophers suggest that growing tomatoes is like growing orchids: Skill must be applied with instinct and touch. Bulloch, the pragmatist, adds consistency.
“You can’t go on a two-week vacation when it’s dry,” he says.
Picture him out there at 6 a.m., whispering to his tomatoes. Remembering all the other gardens, the infestations, the droughts, the hailstorms, the fertilizers, the soils, the perfect orbs and the squishy drops.
In the end, what’s important is the confidence that layered with mayonnaise and bread, your tomatoes will deliver.
They deliver to Mark Barber, of Pinebluff, big time.
“I was raised by my great-grandmother between Eagle Springs and Robbins,” Barber says. “She had a garden. We grew our own stuff.”
The Bullochs and their tomatoes connect Barber to his past.
“Ben’s tomatoes remind me of what I ate as a little boy,” Barber says. “The smell of a tomato vine is like no other. It’s part of the earth.”
As is the man who tended it.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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