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Purple power

When you think of tomato colors, red is typically what first comes to mind. But a new biotech purple tomato variety just may have you think­ing twice.

Fresh on the scene, the “Big Purple Tomato” from Norfolk Plant Sciences has been modified to change its color, extend its shelf life and improve its nutritional quality. And it could soon be hitting the market after ap­proval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service last fall.

It’s just one more evolution in the fascinating history of the tomato and its uses, varieties and colors. The first tomatoes cultivated in Mexico by the Nahua and Maya civilizations were green, yellow and orange. The fruit was introduced to Spain in the early 16th century by the conquis­tadors and made its way to the Middle East and Italy before spreading worldwide.

Through traditional cross-breeding methods, colors and varieties of tomato have grown along with traits such as disease resistance and longer shelf life. As Heinz ketchup and Campbell’s Soup drove American tomato consumption in the 20th century, plant breeders developed a hardy, tough-skinned tomato that could be harvested by machines.

Although there are other purple tomatoes on the market, the Norfolk Plant Sciences variety is different. Through genetic modification, this purple tomato is designed to have the same nutrients as conventional varieties while providing high levels of anthocyanin, the antioxidant-rich pigment that gives eggplants, blackberries and blueberries their deep shades of blue and purple.

The purple tomato is the brainchild of British biochemist Cathie Martin, who has spent two decades in research and almost 15 years gaining its regulatory approval. It will be the first GMO tomato on the market since 1994, when the Flavr Savr was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Touted to have extended shelf life, the Flavr Savr tomato was not a commercial success and was ultimately taken off the shelves in 1997.

The introduction of anthocyanin doesn’t change the traditional tomato taste, Martin said, and her research also found that the GMO purple toma­toes have a shelf life twice as long as a standard tomato.

The next steps are FDA approval and commercialization, which could happen as early as this spring. Norfolk will begin to launch limited test markets this year to identify which consumers are most interested in purple tomatoes. Visit bigpurpletomato.com for more information.

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The art of the tomato

Growing tomatoes is more than gardening or farming. It’s an art and a science with a bit of psychology mixed in.

That’s the description shared by Dr. Casey Barickman at the 2022 Missouri Tomato School last May in Lee’s Summit. The associate research professor at Mississippi State University’s North Mississippi Research and Extension Center was one of two keynote speakers at the two-day educational conference and farm tour.

“The tomato must be beautiful for the buyer to understand that it is going to be a good-tasting fruit,” Barickman said. “Tomatoes are expensive to produce, and there are a number of labor inputs. There is so much time put into planning, planting, staking, pruning, watering and harvesting with this summer fruit. However, they’re always a consumer favorite when it comes to farmer’s markets and the grocery store.”

The Tomato School was sponsored by the Webb City Farmers Market, Universi­ty of Missouri Extension and Lincoln University Cooperative Extension and under­written by specialty crops grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. This was the fifth year for the event, which brings together experts in the field to teach commercial growers and hobbyists how to better grow Missouri’s top-selling specialty crop.

“Tomatoes are in the top three horticulture crops grown in Missouri,” Barickman said. “The other two are potatoes and melons.”

The first day of the Tomato School included presentations from seven experts on a variety of topics such as tomato nutrient management; best practices for harvest and postharvest storage; disease management; hydroponic cultivation; beneficial insects versus pests; growing tomatoes in high tunnels and greenhouses; using essential oils to control pests; and comparing yields of grafted and non-grafted tomatoes.

The other keynote speaker was Dr. Rick Snyder, who recently retired from Mississippi State University after serving 33 years as Extension/Research Professor at the Truck Crops Experiment Station in Crystal Springs, Miss. He has been a speaker at all five Missouri Toma­to Schools, sharing his knowledge of commercial production of greenhouse, high-tunnel and field tomatoes.

“Your method of growing tomatoes should be based on your whole farm en­terprise,” he said. “Figure out what fits into your farm and your market.”

According to Snyder, greenhouse toma­toes are higher quality and can produce a higher volume because of the controlled environment.

“A greenhouse allows you to modify the environment, such as temperature, insects, diseases, weeds, air quality and water,” he said. “Temperature is most important. Greenhouses also allow production when it would be impossible or very difficult. You have the opportunity to grow and har­vest tomatoes basically year-round.”

However, Snyder added, growing tomatoes in greenhouses incurs the most cost of the three methods, considering the larger capital investment for the structure and additional expenses for heating fuel. The upside is the opportunity to capture extra value.

“Greenhouse tomatoes that are locally grown and vine ripened have a very good selling point,” he said. “You can pick them when they are red or light red and at a uniform size and shape. They make a nice presentation in the box when you bring them to the grocery store or farmer’s market. They also have a very good flavor because they’re deli­ciously ripe.”

Field-grown tomatoes have the lowest input investments, Snyder continued, if the “grower has plenty of fertile land and a reasonably long growing season.”

“With field tomatoes, profits can be the highest, yet the season is shorter,” he said. “High tunnel growth can extend the tomato growing season. You can start your harvest earlier in the spring and continue into the fall when the field tomatoes are perishing due to frost.”

When determining which system is right for your farm, Snyder said it might just be a combination. “Look at the entire enterprise and make smart decisions about which system or combination of systems will maximize your profits and your markets,” he said.


For the second day of Missouri Tomato School, the “students” visited Redfearn Farm, a diverse vegetable farm in Independence, Mo. Owner Dave Redfearn shared his experience with growing a variety of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, including grafted types, in high tunnels, greenhouses and fields.

The Redfearn family has been naturally growing produce since 2009 with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that serves Overland Park, Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Inde­pendence with weekly boxes of organic vegetables.

“We utilize year-round production strategies to provide our community fresh, locally grown produce, even during our cold Missouri winter,” Redfearn explained to the attentive group.

It’s all-hands-on-deck at Redfearn Farm. Dave, his wife, Sheri, and their five children all pitch in to grow healthy food and nurture the soil. Redfearn said building organic matter in the soil they use to grow their tomatoes and vegetables is a key to their success.

“Feeding the soil is our core business,” he said. “It may look like dirt to you, but the soil is a vast ecosystem of living organ­isms and minerals, iron oxides, unicellular bacteria, actinomycete filaments, flagellated protozoans, ciliated protozoans, amoebae, mycorrhizal fungi, nematodes, root hairs, earthworms, elongate springtails and mites. These combine to make nutrients available to our plants.”

Tomato School attendees toured the greenhouses with neat rows of healthy plants that were carefully clipped to twine and wire supports. With the knowl­edge gained in the classroom the day before, growers were able to ask Redfearn questions about the differ­ent growing methods.

In the high tunnels, Redfearn grows tomatoes and a variety of lettuces, kale, chard and other greens.

“We typically plant indeterminate cherry tomatoes in the high tunnels so we have fruit throughout the year,” he explained. “We have tested many different tomato varieties. For our beefsteak tomatoes, we plant determinates because they just taste better. I’m not going to grow something that looks great but is tasteless.”

Primo Red tomatoes are planted outdoors in the field. This tomato is a determinate hybrid that grows on a compact, open plant and provides the farm with uniformly sized tomatoes that make for an easy har­vest. Redfearn also uses cover crops in these fields.

“We plant buckwheat, winter rye and field peas to add organic matter and fix nitrogen into the soil,” he said. “The thick, organic straw mulches we apply for water conservation and weed control also break down to feed the soil micro-organisms. Crop rotations, including deep-rooted crops, help bring up key min­erals locked deep within the Missouri subsoil.”

Soil and how to treat the land were big topics of the farm tour. Redfearn said that he “limits tillage and compaction of our planting beds to improve soil structure. That gives soil microbes, fungi and earth­worms the ability to thrive.”


Throughout the two-day school, present­ers offered their expertise and answered questions from the growers. Here are some of the most interesting and useful takeaways for both commercial producers and home gardeners:

  • Temperatures below 50 degrees and over 90 degrees impair tomato growth. The best temperature range is 64 to 85 de­grees.
  • There are 8,000 varieties of tomatoes, according to Snyder. There is no perfect variety. Whatever you plant, choose one that yields well, produces tomatoes with a uniform size, has excellent disease resistance and is free of physiological disor­ders. The variety is dependent on your market and location, growing season and method.
  • Before planting, test your soil or growing medium. Knowing your soil nutrient levels can help ensure you start tomatoes off on the right foot, Barickman said.
  • Don’t crowd plants. Each plant needs 5 square feet. Over­crowding encourages disease and pests, plus limits the quantity and quality of the fruit.
  • Most producers plant indeterminate tomatoes because they continue to bloom and bear fruit all season. Many flavorful determinate tomatoes bear all their fruit within a few weeks and wither away.
  • Commercial growers harvest tomatoes when they are green and then apply ethylene gas to trigger the ripening process. Most direct-to-consumer producers harvest at the breaker stage, or when the pink color first becomes noticeable. These tomatoes are physiologically mature and will develop their tomato-red color naturally.
  • Water during the day, not in the evening, to allow time for the roots’ absorption. When water is introduced and sits on the fruit or leaves, pathogens start to be active. Water is an excellent medium for taking a little bit of contamination and spreading it harvest-wide.
  • Harvest tomatoes as often as they are ready. This is a great way to encourage more flower and fruit formation.

The 2023 Tomato School will be held in person and virtually on May 16 with farm visits around the state on May 17 and 18. Visit online at bit.ly/2023TomatoSchool and provide your email to be notified when registration is open.

Visit webbcityfarmersmarket.com/training.html and redfearnfarm.com for more information on the 2022 event.


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Aquatic plant or water weed?

PONDS NEED PLANTS. But too many or the wrong kind can cause problems, from interfering with recreation to harming fish populations. At the point when aquatic plants become a nuisance, that’s when they become weeds.

“Aquatic plants are vital to maintaining a balanced ecosystem in your pond,” said Andrew Branson, fisheries programs specialist with the Missouri Department of Conser­vation. “They form the base of the food chain for almost all life in the pond and serve as habitat and protection for small fish and invertebrates. But if plants are getting in the way of the intended use of the pond—like fishing, swimming or boating—then it’s something you need to manage.”

Though the amount of plant life in a healthy pond will vary, Branson said, ideally no more than 10% to 20% of its surface and bottom should be covered.

“Too many aquatic plants can actually create low-oxygen fish kills,” he explained. “The plants create oxygen during the day when the sun is shining on them. But at night, when everything’s dark, the reverse happens. The plants start pulling oxygen from the water. If your pond’s already struggling due to being shallow or in the heat of the summer, you could wake up to a lot of dead fish.”

Though any kind of plant can become a nuisance if conditions are right, some are more likely to become a problem than others, Branson said. Topping that list is hydrilla, an ex­tremely aggressive invasive weed that can clog waterways, displace native vegetation and contribute to harmful algae blooms. A plant native to Africa and southeast Asia, hydrilla infestations in the U.S. are thought to have originated from the aquarium trade in Florida.

Similar in appearance is Eur­asian milfoil, another invasive aquatic plant that can threaten the health of a lake or pond. This weed forms thick mats in shallow water, quickly growing, spreading and eventually blocking sunlight, which can kill off native aquatic plants that fish and other underwater species rely on for food and shelter.

Noninvasive aquatic plants can also become nuisances if left unchecked, Branson said, pointing out cattails and water lilies as examples.

“These are found in many ponds, and people love them be­cause they’re pretty,” he said. “But they can easily get out of con­trol if you don’t manage them. We have all seen times where the cattails ring the pond or lily pads completely cover the surface. That’s a problem.”

Of all the nuisance plants, however, Branson said filamentous algae seems to be the No. 1 issue for Missouri pond owners. Appearing as fine green threads that form dense, floating mats, filamentous algae is often referred to as “pond moss” or “pond scum.”

“I get the most calls about filamentous algae in ponds, which can make fishing, swimming and other recreational uses nearly impossible,” Branson said. “In extreme cases, this type of algae can totally cover a pond’s surface, which restricts growth of fish and desirable plants.”

Excessive plant growth is often due to an overabundance of pond nutrients, which can be caused by agricultural runoff, livestock waste or accumulation of organic matter over time. Ponds are naturally collectors, serving as a settling basin for the land that drains into it. The older a pond gets, the more nutrients it builds.

“No matter what type of aquatic plants you have, they need three things,” Branson said. “They need lots of water. That’s no problem since they live in water. They need lots of sunlight, and that’s usually not a problem in Missouri, either. And they need fertilizer. So, if we can keep nutrients out of the pond, that’ll make a big difference.”

Having some type of barrier between agricultural fields and ponds can slow runoff and filter nutrients before they reach the water. Fencing cattle out of the pond will also help.

“If the pond is used as a watering hole in a pasture, you’re probably always going to have nuisance plants because the cattle are fertilizing it continually,” Branson said. “But if recre­ation is the main reason you have a pond, then you need to find another source of water for the cattle.”

While nutrient management can help prevent water weeds, pond owners will likely need to control some vegetation by mechanical, biological or chemical methods—and perhaps a combination of all three.

“Mechanical control means physically getting in there and pulling, digging, cutting or raking out the nuisance plants,” Branson said. “That is usually the first thing people start with, when they start noticing a problem encroaching or if they just want to open up a certain spot on the bank, like around a dock or a fishing spot. Aquatic plants grow fast, however, so you may have to weed the pond often to keep them under control.”

Biological control involves the addition of plant-eating fish, which, in MFA territory, is generally limited to grass carp, Bran­son said. A large member of the minnow family, grass carp can eat two to three times their weight in pond vegetation each day.

“They are definitely effective for certain plants, but we always recommend adding grass carp as a last resort because they don’t discriminate with what they eat,” he said. “They don’t only take out your nuisance plants, but they may also wipe out benefi­cial plants. MDC’s county biologists can help recommend the correct number of grass carp for each situation.”

“However, grass carp are not effective on algae,” Branson added. “They like leafy, weedy types of plants, but they won’t eat that slimy stuff.”

Herbicides, on the other hand, will help control algae and many other nuisance plants. There are no all-purpose weed killers for ponds, so selecting the right chemical is of utmost importance, he cautioned.

“While herbicides are the go-to choice for certain aquatic weeds, you must exercise extreme care,” Branson said. “Often, there’s only a small difference between dosage rates that will kill both weeds and fish. You want to make sure you use the cor­rect, safe herbicide and in the right amount. You don’t want to overdo it. Our county biologists can help with what herbicides and amounts work best.”

Timing is critical when chemically treating ponds, Branson said. MDC recommends applying herbicides only when the water temperature is below 80 degrees, typically in the spring when the plants are actively growing.

“That means right about now, or real soon, you need to start watching the pond and hit it with chemicals at the first sign of anything growing,” he said. “Once the water warms up, it’s not able to hold as much oxygen, and you need to be done treating until the water temperature cools off again.”

The scope and frequency of herbicide use must also be care­fully managed, Branson added. Only one-quarter to one-third of the vegetation should be treated at a time, leaving a week to 10 days between applications.

“When the plants are dying, they’re also pulling out more oxygen from the water as they’re decomposing,” he explained. “You want to give the pond a chance to recover before you hit it again. So don’t go out and spray the whole pond all at once.”

Before undertaking any control measures, the first step is identifying the problem plant, Branson said. The Missouri De­partment of Conservation offers an extensive “Nuisance Aquatic Plant ID” guide online at mdc.mo.gov, or it’s available in print form at local MDC offices.

“There are some lookalikes out there, so be sure you know what weed you’re trying to control,” Branson advised. “That’s the first step. Once you can identify it, then you can browse the list of control measures for guidance on how to control them. If you need assistance, MDC has fisheries management biologists and private land biologists for every county in Missouri. Either one of those can help as well.”

According to Branson, the aquatic weeds shown here are among those most likely to cause problems in ponds through­out MFA territory. Consult pages 38-41 of MFA’s 2023 Agron­omy Guide for more information on other nuisance plants and herbicide options or visit with the crop protection experts at your local MFA or AGChoice center.

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Completing the circle

WHOLE FARM PERSPECTIVE, WHOLE FARM VALUE. For Danny Mairs, it’s more than just MFA’s motto. It’s a comprehensive approach to helping him and his wife, Gwen, fulfill a dream on their cattle ranch in the scenic Arcadia Valley just outside of Ironton, Mo.

From Health Track to Nutri-Track, livestock risk insurance to pasture management, fence posts to cattle-handling equipment, MFA has High Valley Ranch covered, with products, services and ideas to help the Mairs family maximize production and resolve daily challenges.

“MFA has been very good for us,” Danny said. “I mean, we have the whole team on our side.”

When the former Californians decided to sell their petroleum truck­ing business three years ago, the couple knew they wanted to live on a ranch and get back into the cattle business.

“I had two dreams when Gwen and I got married 50 years ago. One was to own a cattle ranch and the other was to own a trucking compa­ny,” Danny said. “I wanted to own up to 100 trucks, and we did that. In 2019, when I sold the company to my son, Jeremy, we had 175 trucks and about 450 employees.”

With the trucking dream realized, he and Gwen searched the country for the right place to raise beef cattle.

“This was my other dream—to own a cattle ranch,” Danny said. “We are not finished with dream building yet, so we are not retired. I say ‘we’ because we both worked on these dreams together.”

Married at the age of 18, Danny and Gwen moved from their home­town of Independence, Calif., to Bakersfield, Calif., so she could attend college. “He is good at that,” Gwen said. “If he has a vision and a direction, he finds a way of making it work.”

In the works now is their 711-acre ranch, which the couple is building into a top-of-the-line operation with infrastructure and equipment to care for 150 crossbred Angus cows, 150 calves plus 70 yearlings. Their oldest son, Matt, is helping his parents work to perfect that dream at record speed.

“What Danny and his family have done in two years usually takes a generation to achieve,” said Stephen Daume, MFA live­stock specialist, commenting that the ranch is one of the most beautiful spots in Missouri.

Prior to their Midwest move, Danny had some background in the livestock business. His experience was raising a few head of cattle while in high school, driving livestock trucks and then owning a herd on a small ranch in California.

“After we were married, I started hauling livestock for a com­pany,” Danny said. “I was on the road a lot and Gwen didn’t like staying home alone, so she got her license and drove with me. We ran cattle all over the western U.S.”

In 1985, Danny got into the petroleum trucking business and four years later purchased the company and its fleet of 35 trucks. The company continues to serve customers like Shell Oil, Chevron and ExxonMobil today.

As they were transitioning from trucking to ranching, Gwen found their Missouri farm on the internet. She said listening to her heart, her soul and the Lord led the couple to the Arcadia Valley. Gwen’s other passion is her custom greenhouse, which is still a work in progress.

When they purchased the ranch in 2019, Danny said he didn’t know how many challenges awaited them. The first problem to solve was pastures full of out-of-control weeds. Not really knowing where to turn, he called Lucas Brewen, the MFA bulk plant supervisor in Farmington.

“Lucas came out, and then next thing I know, Stephen (Daume), David Moore (MFA range and pasture specialist), Rob Rickenberg (MFA precision agronomy specialist), Landry Jones (MFA conservation grazing specialist) and Chris Klein (MFA agronomy key account manager) came out here to help,” Danny said. “We had a whole parcel of people trying to figure out what was going on and what were the best solutions for our cattle operation.”

As a result, High Valley Ranch was enrolled in MFA’s preci­sion Nutri-Track system for all the pastures, starting with grid sampling to get a baseline for the soil properties and nutrient levels. From there, MFA provided recommendations tailored to each acre and applied variable rates of fertilizer and lime. The third stage in the program is to monitor the fertility and replace only what is needed.

“The first year, we had to put down quite a bit of lime because these fields had not been fertilized in years,” Danny said. “With the maps, we know what each field needs and exactly where the product needs to go, which in the long run saves time and money.”

“And if you want to see the results, just drive down the road,” Stephen added. “You can see where the Mairs’ property line ends. There is a huge difference.”

To help feed the cattle throughout the hot, dry summers, Landry Jones worked with Danny to establish native warm-season grasses in the pastures.

“We cleared trees off about 100 acres and put in the native grasses,” Danny said. “We decided not to grow our own hay and are buying it from a local farmer.”

Another challenge they faced in that first year was calving. Gwen said she and Matt had their hands full with weak calves that suffered from scours and pneumonia.

“They were constantly giving the calves medication and trying to keep them healthy,” Danny added. “Stephen offered some ideas, and we decided to follow his advice with our calves and then our cows. Once weaned, we put the calves in the MFA Health Track program.”

Danny said having the advice from an experienced Midwest livestock specialist has been priceless.

“Running cattle in California is nothing like running cattle here,” Danny said. “You’ve got fescue toxicity, bugs, mud, severe weather, water freezing up, pasture rotation, fertilization and the need for shade. In California, we just had hillsides. We put the cows out and never fertilized anything. It was so different. The questions Stephen asked helped us change our whole operation.”

One suggestion was to think about crossbreeding the Mairs family’s cattle with a more durable breed that has the ability to fight heat stress and fescue toxicity.

“With the goals of our operation—retaining ownership, selling our cattle on the grid, working with a reputable feedlot and packer, and wanting more pounds per acre—crossbreeding was a great plan,” Danny said. “Stephen said a Bos indicus-influenced breed would help us achieve those goals while potentially adding another revenue stream by selling crossbred replacement heifers adapted for southern Missouri.”

After detailed research, Danny decided to crossbreed his black and red Angus with Beefmaster bulls. “Our search for a good provider of quality genetics lead us to NextGen Cattle Company in Kansas,” he explained. “They are a great fit for us because it is a one-stop shop. From the bulls to the feedlot to the packer, NextGen does an excellent job. We are very happy with our decision to move in this direction.”

The Beefmaster breed has excellent maternal traits with good growth and carcass abilities. The cattle are heat, drought and insect resistant, qualities that are needed in southern Missouri.

“From a genetic perspective, crossbreeding allows us to impact reproductive efficiency the quickest.”

With Stephen’s guidance, the feeding protocol at High Valley Ranch has also changed.

“We add Shield to our grain and use MFA Ricochet minerals and tubs—also with Shield—to improve colostrum quality,” Danny said. “We will start using a colostrum supplement with the fall calves this year.”

To complete the MFA whole-farm perspective, Danny and Gwen purchase cattle equipment, feeders, and posts and wire for fencing, and they work with MFA Area Crop Insurance Agent Taylor Gilmore for their livestock risk protection.

The learning curve has been tremendous, but Danny said he is constantly reading and asking questions to improve his knowledge and the operation.

“The MFA team is also responsible for the DNA testing we are doing with International Genetic Solutions,” he said. “We run DNA tests on all our cows, our calves in the feedlot and the heifers we breed. Plus, all our bulls are registered and have genomic information. We are using that data to generate expected progeny differences (EPDs) on our crossbred cows through American Simmental and IGS (International Genetic Solutions).”

Stephen added that this genomic information will also be used to develop strategic mating solutions through a new pro­gram with Allied Genetic Resources. The service aligns males and females to impact profitability traits, including marbling, growth and reproductive longevity.

“I want to do something that’s unique and provide excellent quality beef to consumers while at the same time raising cross­bred heifers adapted to south Missouri,” Danny said. “Raising heifers with this amount of genetic merit and profitability built in is extremely exciting. I’m not sure where we would have ended up without the MFA team in our corner.”

For more information on MFA’s whole farm solutions, visit with the experts at your local MFA or AGChoice center.


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