Photography by Breezy Lucia
Robert Tims, farmer and owner of Ripley Produce, says as he walks slowly amongst rows and rows of tomatoes.
It’s a hot summer afternoon; the sun beats down and creates short shadows around our feet. He stops and surveys the plants. “So sweet, we could call these ‘cutie pies,’” he says.
The Tims family has provided produce and tomatoes to Memphis and the surrounding areas for three generations.
Tims walks a bit and then stretches out his hand. Tucked in his dirt-lined fingers are a variety of cherry tomatoes—Sun Golds, he calls one variety, which have a biting, sweet-and-sour taste. Others boast a robust purple color and full-bodied flavor. “Chocolate Cherries,” Tims explains. Each tomato is tiny, unique and perfectly ripe.
He calls out more names of tomatoes as we pass: Cherokee Purple, Mountain Spring and Copia. A familiarity with plants infuses the farmer’s words. His favorite crop? Cherokee Purple. “They’re rare and hard to grow, but they’re absolutely beautiful,” he says.
Ripley, Tennessee, is famous for its tomatoes. The small town sits an hour north of Memphis; 60 acres of sweeping farmland belong to the Tims family. Ironically, Tims never wanted to be a farmer. He recounts the drudgery of farm work as a child, which included baling hay and using temperamental mules to work the field—his family didn’t use a tractor-drawn plow until he was six. However, after a brief stint at a steel mill, he decided to return to farm life.
Tims oversees the health and growth of 50,000 plants. Walking through his fields, he shows a distinct ease with his agricultural lifestyle despite the temperamental nature of farming. He touches an heirloom plant as we pass. “Blight,” he says, reaching out to a stalk. A few brown spots have left holes in the leaves. Disease commonly affects tomatoes, but the root of the issue is what really troubles Tims.
Climate change has negatively affected the growth of the tomatoes. This season, Tims notes, an early cold snap delayed the plants. Then torrential rains pounded the plants. The irregularities in weather make it difficult to keep plants healthy in an organic fashion, though Tims does his best to avoid pesticides and other chemicals.
“It didn’t used to be like this,” Tims says, his eyes roving the horizon.
“We used to have less intense heat and gentler rains. That’s my memory of the environment growing up. That climate yielded healthier tomatoes.”
I broach the touchy subject: “Global warming?”
He nods. “In my experience, it’s no question,” he says. “I don’t know how else to explain this weather pattern, but it’s brutal on plants.”
Despite this concern, the joy in the work remains. Tims relishes the relationships that he has formed with his customers, like those who drive to the farm from the Memphis area and those he meets at farmers markets, including the farmers market at the Agricenter International, the Memphis Farmers Market and the South Memphis Farmers Market. In addition to tomatoes, he sells his sweet potatoes, cucumbers, corn, soybeans and purple beans. Tims hopes over time to see an upswing in the fall farmers market attendance; summer months draw crowds, but many customers miss the bountiful fall harvest.
Industry leaders have also noticed the quality of Ripley Produce. Whole Foods in Memphis sold Ripley Produce’s tomatoes for several years. Now Tims prefers sending his tomatoes to Tommy Thompson Produce in Louisville and to The Produce Place in Nashville.
The farm’s production room, where we sit now, is modest but welcoming with a big rocking chair and wood board walls. On an old cash register sits a note left by a neighbor who wants to stop by and buy produce.
As I rock and swat mosquitoes, a conveyor belt whirs to my right. A large machine cleans the surface of the tomatoes and sorts them by size. I admire the various shades of red-orange from my seat. Farming them is strenuous—the workers cover all 60 acres and dig irrigation ditches to keep the plants watered. The summer sun is intense, and workers handpick each tomato. These tomatoes seem far removed from the squeaky-clean uniformity of supermarket tomatoes.
As we leave, Tims tucks his rare Cherokee Purples in a bag for me to take home.
A spirit of generosity and connectedness infuses this Tennessee farm—and each and every tomato.
Sarah Hagaman is a native Tennessean who frequents the Memphis food scene. She has written for various publications, including Edible Nashville, The Oxford Student at England’s Oxford University and the Daily Beacon at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Breezy Lucia is a Memphis transplant from Kansas City, Missouri. She’s a freelance photographer and filmmaker living in Midtown