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The first tomatoes are still the sweetest and man still can't control the weather

Mychal Wilmes reflects on his changing perceptions of produce and how human attempts to control weather have yielded mixed results.

Cherry tomatoes hang on a vine. One is nearly ripe, the others are green.
Cherry tomatoes typically are ready before beefsteak tomatoes, and Mychal Wilmes now understands his mother's perspective that the first tomatoes are the sweetest.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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The first tomatoes from the garden always taste the sweetest.

I did not share Mother’s joy after she found the first ripe tomatoes in the garden. Tomato slices were made tolerable if they were doused with tablespoons of sugar.

Much the same could be said when it was time to collect the ground cherries in fall. Ground cherry pie was OK if topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Hunting ground cherries in fall wasn’t fun, but gooseberry picking was much worse. Begging older siblings to help always failed, so I left for the far reaches of the pasture in a contrary mood. Mosquitoes, horseflies, and other insects feasted while the tedious job went on forever.

Time changes everything and now I anxiously await the ripening of tomatoes and long for ground cherry and gooseberry pie.


Cherry tomatoes arrive first, followed by a couple of beefsteak tomatoes. Heritage tomatoes — popular after Thomas Jefferson convinced people that tomatoes weren’t poisonous — is a growing season experiment. Orange, purple, and yellow tomatoes are slow in ripening. I also planted a heritage black Russian variety that produces black fruit. My sister says she isn’t sure that black-skinned tomatoes are appetizing.

It's been a drier-than-normal growing season with just enough rain to keep corn and soybeans going. More roadside ditches have been baled as demand for hay is strong.

Self-promoters, money grabbers, scientists, and others have tried through the decades to influence the weather. Cloud-seeding efforts, which began with new scientific knowledge in the 1940s, continues in the most drought-stricken areas of the nation. Those efforts are a far cry from the 1890s, when people toured the country promising to bring rain using secret formulas in return for cash.

The most famous of them all was the self-billed “Rain Wizard” Frank Melbourne, who traveled in a well-guarded train car to drought-stricken areas promising to deliver rain in return for large monetary gain. He drew thousands of people in appearance across the Midwest accompanied by top-secret chemical concoctions.

The Rocky Mountain News covered his appearance in bone-dry Wyoming.

“The only apparatus or chemicals he took with him were contained in four knapsacks," the newspaper reported. He set up operations in a barn’s hay mow and covered windows and cracks in the floor so no one could see him mix the ingredients. For two days, the sky remained clear. But on the third day, the Rocky Mountain News reported heavy rain throughout the region.

His success helped draw thousands of others to town meetings. His rain-causing record was mixed, but he claimed credit across the country. Rocky Mountain News reported that the Weather Service threw cold water on his efforts, saying that he followed its weather forecasts and showed up only in places where rain had been predicted. Others claimed to have purchased Melbourne’s secret recipe and promised great results.

In more recent times, the Kansas Historical Society noted that the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program was established in 1975. Its mission was to increase rainfall and reduce crop damage caused by hail. Chemicals were shot into clouds by airplane and the results were impressive.


Hail damage dropped by 27%. However, rain amounts decreased by 11%. California orchard owners, fearful about hail damaging fruit crops, have fired cannons into clouds to break up pending hailstorms. Cannons cost nearly $100,000 but are deemed worth it.

Mother, like many others, relied on prayer to end droughts. It worked, given we never suffered a complete crop failure. Dad, who annually weighed the cost of hail insurance with its potential benefits, most often decided against coverage.

Many scientists say that climate change is producing record rain events and historic droughts across the globe. Eventually, they say, Midwest farmers will have to change farming practices as a result.

Human efforts to shape the weather have produced mixed results. The only certainty is that God promised in the Old Testament never to send another flood to destroy life on earth.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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