So little time, so many tomatoes

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NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. --- Alex Tingle is one busy teenager.

The 16-year-old West Jessamine High School student grows 1,200 to 1,500 tomato plants and about the same number of pepper plants on his family's rural property east of Nicholasville.

Most of the produce will be sold to KHI Foods Inc., a northern Kentucky company that makes salsas, marinaras and a line of fortified soups for cancer patients.

"It's my summer job to try to be a little self-sufficient," Alex said.

But it's much more than a summer job. This year's seedlings began in a greenhouse in March, were planted in May and will mature in August, just as school starts. The harvest will last well into October.

In the midst of all that, Alex must study, play in the West Jessamine High School band, and tend to his duties as president of the school's Future Farmers of America chapter.

In the words of Millard Long, the KHI president who buys the teen's tomatoes and peppers, Alex is "a real entrepreneur."

"He's very resourceful, very hardworking," Long said. "I wish I had been that industrious when I was that young."

The tomatoes and peppers were all planted by hand by Alex, his older brother Marshall, 20, and an FFA buddy, Taylor Husson.

Alex primarily grows Roma tomatoes for KHI. But he also raises Golden Jubilee and Rutgers varieties, which he hopes to sell at farmers markets in Nicholasville and Wilmore, and to a vegetable market in Lincoln County.

Tending to such a large crop is time-consuming, what with the weeding and picking. There have been times when Alex's mother, Kathy Fields, has told her son, "It is 2 o'clock in the morning. You have to go to bed."

The tomato-growing enterprise began last year as part of an FFA project. Alex used leftover plants that were not sold by an agriculture class at school. He cultivated a former pasture with a rotary tiller.

With the help of Kevan Evans, owner of Evans Orchard in Georgetown, and Roger Snell with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Alex got in touch with KHI and Long.

Snell works with Kentucky Proud, the state program that helps farmers find markets for fruits and vegetables.

Because Alex was too young to have a driver's license last year, he and Fields, an instructional administrator for the Jessamine County school district, delivered tomatoes to KHI's Burlington operation in her red Mustang.

"We know exactly how many bushel baskets will go into a Mustang: 9 bushel baskets," Fields said.

"Four in the front and back seats, five in the trunk," Alex said.

"We had to put the top down," Fields said. "We were quite a sight on the interstate."

This year, Alex cultivated the ground with a 1953 Ferguson tractor. And he has a pickup truck to make the deliveries to Burlington.

KHI Foods uses Alex's tomatoes — and some from growers in Owen County — in marinara sauce for Pompilio's, an Italian restaurant in Newport, and in salsa and barbecue sauce marketed by Ale-8-One, the Winchester soft-drink bottler.

KHI also sells the tomatoes to Remke Markets, a chain of eight stores in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, Long said.

The tomatoes also are used in Comfort Care Foods, a line of soups and other entrees that KHI developed with guidance from the nutrition department of St. Elizabeth Medical Center in northern Kentucky.

From his profits, Alex saves money for college. He hopes to attend either Morehead University or the University of Kentucky.

When he was younger, Alex raised goats as a 4-H project, but his mother prefers tomatoes.

"Tomatoes are a whole lot better than goats," Fields said. "Goats eat your flowers."


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