Billy Becton hoes around his tomato plants with his grandson Miles Ellison, 6. Miles got a junior-sized hoe and rake for Easter, weeks after Becton began
planting his 350 tomato plants.
Photo by Melissa Hall
Stewed tomatoes, sliced tomatoes, salad tomatoes, canned tomatoes, tomato relish, tomato sauce, fried green tomatoes.
For two-time Big Tomato champion Billy Becton, it's what's for dinner.
Billy Becton won the 2003 Big Tomato Challenge with a fruit that weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces, capturing the award for the second year in a row. The 2002 champion Beefmaster tomato weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces.
"You could have made several sandwiches out of that one," Evans High Horticulture Teacher Charles Anderson said. "But he's got a ways to go to beat the word record, which is around 7 pounds - about the size of a volleyball. The biggest tomato I've ever seen is 2 pounds, but he can grow some big ones."
Anderson and other area agriculture teachers have hosted a tomato growing seminar for the past two years and added the contest to spark interest.
But Becton doesn't grow them for size or glory.
Ten tomato plants will feed Becton, his wife Patricia, their three children and seven grandchildren. Three-hundred fifty plants will feed a whole lot more, and Becton is happy to share.
"Twenty to 30 percent will die, disease will get another 10 percent and the birds will eat another 10 percent, so you've got to plant so there will be enough left for family and neighbors," he said.
Big Beef, Beefmaster and Big Boy are among the varieties he's planted, some already knee-high. He began in mid-March and even built a make-shift greenhouse.
"I like to experiment each year to find a better variety from the previous year. I've never planted anything for size, I plant for taste. I love a good, juicy, tomato-y taste," said Becton, who likes the Beefmaster the best.
With the many varieties, Becton will have tomatoes from early June until the first frost and beyond.
He doesn't use pesticides on his tomatoes, but instead uses an organic concoction that includes ingredients like dish detergent and snuff.
"I have a phobia about chemicals," he said. "I don't think you could ever wash a tomato enough to get that chemical all off."
Becton, 67, works part-time at Chardan Ltd., a clothing manufacturer in Thomson, and uses scraps of cloth around the tomatoes to keep the weeds away. People also bring him pine straw and leaves, which he used to mulch.
Growing things is nothing new to Becton, who was raised on a farm in Jenkins County. Besides tomatoes, he plants beans, cucumbers, broccoli, potatoes, peppers, okra, peas, squash and sunflowers for the birds. Becton is also an admirer of Purple Martins and has gourd houses for them.
Many of the rusty old farm implements from his childhood watch quietly while he carries on the tradition. There's also a blue 1967 Ford tractor that chugs to life to plow and plant in the red clay. The Bectons bought about 20 acres on Hardy-McManus Road in 1980, and their three daughters and grandchildren all live nearby.
"I don't play golf. I don't visit bars. All I do is garden and keep the grass cut," Becton said. "This is my country club."
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