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The other red treat is big business too

Kirby Johnson explains the new color sorter that makes packing faster and more efficient. Kirby Johnson explains the new color sorter that makes packing faster and more efficient.

MILLS RIVER — They’re most often red, sometimes green, sometimes yellow. Sweet and juicy, they're grown in Henderson County and shipped up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

And they’re not apples.
Widely known as North Carolina's biggest apple grower, Henderson County ranks second in tomato production, not least because of the Johnson family and its sprawling Flavor 1st empire, which grows tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers and other dinner plate standards on farms stretching from Mills River to the Everglades.
Kirby Johnson is the seventh generation to coax vegetables out of the rich French Broad valley soil. If farming is an old tradition for the Johnsons, the advancements in sorting, packing and shipping are space age. On Thursday, Johnson, Agriculture Extension Director Marvin Owings and extension service vegetable specialist Craig Mauney showed reporters around the Banner Farm Road packinghouse that ships 52 different vegetables across the Eastern U.S. year-round. Once tomatoes have been harvested from the fields and cooled overnight, the next step is sorting.
“My first tomato sorting deal was with my mother father at the end of a pickup truck,” Johnson said. “I’ve been a long way in my day.”
Just how far was on display. The newest packing line is an eight-lane color sorter run by a computer that does the sorting by color and weight that used to be done by people.
Like a lot of factors that make the difference between profit and loss, the investment has everything to do with increasing efficiency and reducing labor costs.
“These people work 12-15 hours a day out here,” he says of the work force in the packinghouse and farm fields. “Unfortunately, Americans won’t do that. My kids won’t do that. I didn’t raise them to do that.
“You’ve got to spend that money to cut that line where it used to take us 70 people down to 24. So hopefully you can keep up with that trend. Unfortunately in everybody’s eyes they think it’s because we pay cheap. I’ve got news for you. My people make more than a lot of high officials up here. I’ve got Hispanics that are picking 60 buckets of tomatoes a day at $5, that’s $300 a day for five or six days. The starting pay is $10 an hour for hard labor but they know they’re going to get to pick (and make three times that).”
Although the media tour was not about the failure of Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws, farmers inevitably talk about the need for a steady supply of labor, and in their experience the steadiest and most reliable workforce has come from south of the border.
“Our problem in what I do, row crop farming, is immigration,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get something passed. I can spend a billion dollars on a tomato (crop) and unless the labor picks it, packs it and does it I’m out of business.”

One way to cut those labor costs is busy at work in the large packing house down a corridor from the corporate offices.
The eight-lane packing line is run by a central computer that reads the size and color of each tomato and tells the machine which barcode sticker to apply.
“This is part of food safety,” Johnson says. “That sticker right there will tell you exactly what farm in the county it came out of in case we get somebody that gets sick. We can take it right down to the actual field that it came out of.”
Because supermarkets order different types of tomatoes — in size, color, ripeness — the color sorter can identify the characteristics.
Based on “the color, the weight, the size, it goes to the avenue that it needs to go to,” he said.. “You go to Publix, you go to Wal-Mart, you go to Bi-Lo, you go to Winn-Dixie — each one of them wants a different type of tomato. This tomato’s darker and bigger, it’s going to go to Publix. That machine does all that with that computer system.”
“Every tomato, what I picked yesterday, cooled down last night, brought over here, will be in the store tomorrow. We’re packing it today. That’s another thing with vine ripe. The quicker the better,” he says.
Orders destined for Boston and Miami are first off the dock, around noon.
“As the day progresses, the last orders we do will be Ingles, will be Publix-Atlanta, the close ones that are two-, three-, four-hour runs,” he said. In the season, Flavor 1st offers in-store delivery of its whole lineup of fresh vegetables.
The steady hum of the two-story high packing machinery is the soundtrack for a busy but orderly symphony of machine sorting, hand packing and box stacking, ending with forklifts gliding to the dock.

By Friday night, Mills River tomatoes will be on a dinner plate a thousand miles away.