Oxford, N.C., farmer Tommy Winston dreamed of being a baseball star and almost made it.

His second love is farming, and on that career he recently hit a home run when he was selected into the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Hall of Fame.

Winston played in the North Carolina Tobacco League as a high school phenom and later while attending college. “I got batters out with my curve ball and thought I had a pretty good fastball, but I guess it wasn’t quite good enough to play professional baseball,” he says.

In addition to his passion for baseball, Winston had a similar affection for farming. When he returned home from college in the early 1960s, he began farming full time at Valley Hill Farms in Oxford, N.C.

At one point he ran a large, highly diversified farming operation that included cattle, tobacco, grain crops and later in his career vegetables.

It was clear early on that tobacco was the money crop back in the 1960s and 1970s. At one point he grew several hundred acres of tobacco, but recognized earlier in the game than most that tobacco was going to come under fire from a health standpoint.

“About 20 years ago, I had a neighbor who grew tomatoes, and he convinced me to try a few acres of tomatoes,” the veteran North Carolina grower says. At one point he grew 25-30 acres of tomatoes, which he says, is comparable to growing a thousand acres of grain.

Getting involved in a big way in vegetables meant getting involved in a big way with the North Carolina Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. During his 20-plus years in the organization he has been a president and treasurer and was one of the primary founders of the association.

Recognizing his many years of service to the fruit and vegetable growers of North Carolina and the Southeast, Winston was inducted into the Hall of Fame during the recent annual meeting of the North Carolina and South Carolina Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The Hall began in 2006. Last year Ira Cline, of Conover, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Previous inductees include:  Kendall Hill, of Kinston, 2004; Carl Patterson, of China Grove, 2005; Leonard Small, of Edenton, 2006; Brent Jackson, of Autryville, 2007; Bobby Ham, of Snow Hill, 2008; and Jimmy Burch, of Faison, 2009.

Was a learning experience

“When I was president of the association, we used to meet every month. We met sometimes in Raleigh and throughout the state. For me, it was a real learning experience — seems like we spent a lot of time together and shared some of our challenges,” Winston says.

Winston says labor is now the biggest single challenge vegetable growers have to overcome. “I’m in the short rows of my farming career, but those folks with large acreages are really facing some crises situations, especially in situations where they need a large number of laborers for a short period of time,” he says.

Winston has been a pioneer in many facets of the vegetable industry, but none more so than in labor and labor management for vegetable farmers. “I was the first in my home county to employ H-2A labor, and that goes back many years,” he says.

“One of the first Mexican workers in our community, Johnny Medina, worked on my farm. He brought family members and friends back year after year for 10 years or so to work on my farm,” Winston says.

“Back in 1960s and 1970s getting and keeping labor was different than it is now and less complicated than it is now.

“Johnny Medina was a great worker. He knew a lot about farming and how to work with and work on a tractor. Most of all he was good with the other Mexican workers he brought with him, Winston adds.

“To show how times have changed, I remember getting a call from Johnny Medina, it was between Christmas and New Years. He had walked and hitch-hiked from Mexico to Houston with several family members and friends, and he wanted me to come to Houston to bring him to North Carolina to work on our farm.

“I flew from Raleigh to Houston, met these guys — most of them I’d never seen before — at the airport in Houston and bought all of them a plane ticket to Raleigh. I bought the tickets and Johnny told the airline agent what name to put on the ticket. Now, it’s a long, hard process just to get workers to your farm,” Winston says.

The North Carolina grower says winning the Hall of Fame Award was totally unexpected. “It is truly an honor to be held in the same high regard as the past winners. Working with the growers association helped me in my farming operation, and to be honored for doing what I considered the right thing and giving back to the industry that has been so good to me is really special, he says.

rroberson@farmpress.com