Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DERIDDER – It’s a sunny morning at the Doherty tomato farm, and proprietor Sara Doherty is flitting back and forth from field to field like a bumblebee.
“I’m sorry we’re so busy, but you gotta work when it’s not raining,” Sara explains.
She’s checking on her 16,000 tomato plants, and so far things aren’t looking good. The rainy, cloudy weather has delayed the crop.
“This weather has been killing us,” she said. “Too much rain. Too much rot. I’ve had people call from Lake Charles and they lost their whole gardens. But that’s farming. That’s what happens with farming.”
Sara has several plants that are dying, and some tomatoes are rotting from excess moisture.
But most of the plants are loaded with green tomatoes mixed with ripening fruit. The cloudy days have delayed maturity.
“In another week, these things will be red,” says Sara’s husband, Jim.
A row with at least 50 ripe tomatoes is targeted for the daily harvest. She made variety selections based on maturity timing to spread the harvest throughout the summer. But she’s afraid this year, because of the wet weather, the whole crop may be ready at once.”
Tomatoes that aren’t suitable for selling are chopped up to make salsa, and Sara’s operation sells 300-400 cases of it a year.
Sara is hard-headed about several things. First, she won’t sell her tomatoes wholesale. “When you buy a Doherty tomato, it’s been picked that day.”
Tomatoes you buy at the big groceries have been developed for long shelf life and to endure shipping, but not for flavor.
Sara takes a pragmatic approach to her money-making enterprise. “This is a business. This is not a big garden.”
But beyond the profit, Sara admits running the operation is satisfying when everything comes together. “I enjoy every single minute of it.”
Her tomato career started 19 years ago when her grandsons wanted to buy video games.
Sara was determined to make the boys realize the value of work. “We’re working type people. I said, ‘You boys need to learn to work and make money.’ So I decided growing and selling tomatoes would be a good way for the boys to work and make money for their videos.”
Jim bought a tiller and Sara started gathering information. Some told her not to get carried away with her project. Just a few tomato plants would be all she could handle. That went in one ear and out the other.
“Number 1, don’t challenge a woman,” Sara said. “Number 2, I’m a visionary. I see it happening before it happens.”
She went to a nursery and bought 200 tomato plants, but she still had garden space left so she bought another 200.
When the tomatoes ripened, a sign was erected at their place near Bundick’s Lake. Her plan worked as the boys made enough money to satisfy their video craving, and folks around the area started craving her tomatoes. “People saw my signs and they just kept coming.”
Word-of-mouth was the best advertising at first.
“The second year, I did 4,000 plants,” Sara recalled.
Jim was floored at her ambition. “I told her ‘You’re crazy.’ “
Sara believes in providence. If she finds a useful article on gardening while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, she chalks it up to one more example of divine intervention. “God is in charge of everything.”
Maybe that’s what happened that one year when two tomatoes grew together into the shape of a rubber ducky. Sara’s visionary instinct kicked in and she capitalized on the faux canard. She made the front page of the Beauregard News, and her following grew more.
“I bet you I had 200 people who came to see that rubber ducky and bought tomatoes.”
She had TV commercials, magazine and newspaper articles. Food writer and Chef Marcelle Bienvenu did an article.
Eventually, she became known as The Tomato Lady. People might not be able to remember her name, or how to pronounce it, but they remember The Tomato Lady, and they certainly won’t forget Sara if they meet her. She’ll talk your ear off with fascinating stories, and she admits to being a bit different.
“I am an unusual person. I am a little eccentric.”
Word spread about The Tomato Lady’s tomatoes. She even heard back from someone who had been talking with fellow travelers in Colorado who -- upon learning they were from DeRidder –asked if they knew the Tomato Lady.
“We have appreciative customers, and I thrive on that,” Sara said. “All our produce is guaranteed.”
She’s on Facebook under “Doherty’s Homegrown Tomatoes – Sara” with contact information.
Sara has stands in DeRidder, Sulphur, Lake Charles and Beaumont.
Her stands have more than just tomatoes. “I can’t afford to pay somebody just to sell one crop.”
Other locally-produced products are offered, such as squash, cucumbers, peas, jams and jellies, and watermelons, although this year’s melon crop is considerably late because of even more weather-related problems.
Another grower uses some of her land for his melon crop that she sells. “He’s going to take care of me, and I take care of him.”
She tried growing cucumbers and squash, but now she buys from other growers. She has been growing cantaloupes but between the deer that feed on the plants and the weather, she’s about ready to call it her last cantaloupe crop. “The deer have just murdered me. If I don’t make money, I ain’t doing this.”
Sara and Jim have a division of labor, and they focus their expertise on what they know.
“He doesn’t know squat about tomatoes,” Sara revealed.
But Jim knows electronics and they owned a cable television company in rural southwest Louisiana until they sold it in 1989 when they moved to Beauregard Parish. “We raised cows and golfed.”
Golf went by the wayside, but Jim still has a herd of 50 Black Angus and he handles equipment maintenance.
Later in the summer, Jim will start making weekly drives to Georgia to buy peaches to sell at their stands.
Hurricanes ravaged their place last year with 130-mph winds that tore their home’s roof off, collapsed a greenhouse and blew away a barn. They’ve been living in their RV, and work on their house is nearing completion, although heavy rains caused a leak that will require extensive renovation.
As they tried to recover from the hurricanes, their disaster wasn’t over.
In February, they replaced their greenhouse destroyed by Hurricane Laura. “Two days later, the snow came and it collapsed.”
But she was able to grow a limited amount of tomato seedlings for sale in both ends of the greenhouse.
Every year, the tomato fields are plowed for the next season. Before transplanting, new rows are made and covered with plastic mulch - black plastic for the early maturing varieties and white plastic for the later maturing ones. To keep tomato plants from falling over, a special tool wraps a plastic tie around the vine where it touches the wire suspended by T-posts.
She relied on 5 tomato hybrids this year: Bush Early Girl, Sunstar, Dream Girl, Bella Rosa and Mountain Merit.
She also has cherry tomatoes and heirlooms. “I personally think they’re overrated,” she said. “I like a good old red tomato.”
She has a crew of retired folks to work the stands.
By late summer, her crop has played out, and Sara takes it easy. “I eat and sleep in August because I run all over before. I love every minute of it.”
To get her tomatoes picked and nurtured, she relies on local workers, many of them still in school “I taught them to get out of bed and get to work every morning.”
Two of her workers will graduate from college next year, and she’ll miss their skills. “They’ll do whatever I need them to do.”
Sandra Bailey is one of her workers. She handles a variety of chores, from running a tractor to picking the crop. “I love it out here. I like being outside.”
Sara says fungicides have prevented her plants from suffering from the wilt that afflicts many backyard growers’ plants in the summer. “I am a true believer in fungicides.”
She prefers Quadris Top, an expensive product only available only to licensed pesticide applicators.
She learned about the product from her son-in-law.
Her oldest daughter, Lucia Strader, a biology professor at Duke University, advised Sara to start her tomato seedlings in sterile soil – cooked to 1500 degrees to eliminate harmful bacteria. That prevents a disease called “damping off” that occurs in young tomato plants.
“Ever since I did that, I’ve not had one case of damping off.”
She uses her kitchen as a grow room to start her tomato seedlings in crawfish platters, 2,000-3,000 per platter. In a week, the young plants are ready for transfer.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said using sterile soil can prevent disease problems. “If you use native soil, it has native fungus that will cause damping off.”
Hawkins said Sara’s success is due to her business acumen and her passion for the crop.
“She is just a very energetic lady and she loves tomatoes. Just loves tomatoes.”