Which tomato plants have the most potential?

Published 3:36 pm Wednesday, July 31, 2019

By Jeremy Weldon


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Billy Atkinson has a thousand tomato plants, give or take a few, he tends in the south part of the county. He’s in the metal building business and farms tomatoes on the side. I can’t get one tomato plant to do right, so I decided to visit him and see how a fellow manages to raise a thousand part time.

It’s a very interesting set up, and certainly more than a hobby. Atkinson has weed control methods and irrigation lines and such, but it’s mostly walking the rows and giving each plant whatever it needs.

We strolled through the rows, and I listened carefully as he gave me a trove of useful tomato information, taking note of his approach with each type of plant. Atkinson’s goal is to produce tomatoes – good ones that people want to buy.

Years of experience has taught him the best ways to get maximum fruit from those thousand or so plants, and it occurred to me that if he decided to change those methods and use the model we heartily endorse in our economic and workforce development efforts he would no doubt have a field of mostly rotten tomatoes in a few years.

Here’s what I observed at the tomato farm. Each plant gets the same opportunity to grow and produce. Some plants, naturally, lag behind and some immediately grow fast and strong. A large percentage are regular plants that grow slower, sometimes struggling a bit.

The farmer doesn’t have to do much for the big, strong vines once he provides the basics and (importantly) gives them room to grow. The weak ones he tries to help, providing extra fertilizer or whatever is needed.

But the most of his resources, the farmer saves for those in the middle – those plants who would only be average, or perhaps become weak, without nutrients and protection from bugs, wilt, and other things that are natural setbacks.

Why shouldn’t we take that approach with the administration of the millions of dollars in post high school education and workforce development that flow through our state and county each year?

The trend among economic development organizations is preparing the local labor force for higher-paying, technical jobs. I get that, and am wholeheartedly behind projects based on this concept.

A forklift driver making $12 an hour can take advantage of technical training, free college courses, and lots of other federal and state  programs to increase his worth in the marketplace and transition to a $21 an hour job.

This is wonderful and I’m glad these opportunities exist. But, take a look at the participation rates in these programs. Talk with industry managers. How much benefit do they see, relative to the time and cost of these programs?

The worst is the millions, yea billions, spent on the chronically under or unemployed, largely by choice. Is it possible to think we may be spending too much of the money (every dime taken from taxpayers’ pockets) on the wrong sector of the workforce?

Here’s an idea. Instead of throwing millions into programs for people who can’t read, what about allocating some for people who can read? Instead of giving all the money to the people who won’t work, what about giving some of it to the people who will?

As we run things now, for the most part, the families who don’t bother to teach their children to read and won’t take full advantage of free public education or vo-tech type classes, and who have shown an inability to remain employed themselves, are afforded a myriad of social and economic development programs and opportunities.

Thank God we live in a country prosperous enough to extend a compassionate helping hand to the victims, the children unfortunate enough to be born into bad families. Americans are willing to help the downtrodden and forgotten, and I’m first in line to support worthy efforts.

What about the families who work hard, struggle financially, and put great emphasis on their children’s education?  There are millions of these families, the very backbone of this nation, who are bearing the load of rearing not only their children, but through dastardly high rates of taxation funding this country’s social programs, an ever-increasing number of other people’s children as well.

Not to mention the thousands from South American countries illegally entering the United States along the southern border.

Let’s continue the good work begun in our high schools that focus on job training and workforce development, and let’s pursue projects like The Concourse (a really big deal, folks) that benefits Panola County, and all of Northwest Mississippi.

But, let’s also take a closer look at how we are using this money. It could be that moving some of that spending to resources for students who are doing well, and that part of our workforce who is already gainfully employed and paying taxes, would produce more return on each dollar. Businesses, and new innovation, would result. It always does when natural achievers are given a little boost.

Perhaps we have coddled the wrong segment of the workforce. Of course there are bright spots and success stories, but for years we’ve thrown massive amounts of money at problems that never seem to get solved, or situations that improve very much.

Aren’t the people handing out this money and deciding what programs to fund as least as smart as our tomato farmer?  He gives extra care to the plants who show potential and is rewarded with fine produce. Further, he has some heirloom plants that he really showers with attention – after all, as he pointed out, rich folks will pay a lot of money for the best tomatoes.

There’s a lesson here, readers. A lesson our leaders would do well to consider.