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'Tomato man' helps Duluth kids grow

DULUTH - Smithville resident Ray Picconatto earned his first ribbon for growing a tomato at Stowe Elementary in 1950. Today, at age 65, he contributes hundreds of tomato plants to area elementary schools for the Duluth Garden Flower Society's ann...

DULUTH - Smithville resident Ray Picconatto earned his first ribbon for growing a tomato at Stowe Elementary in 1950.

Today, at age 65, he contributes hundreds of tomato plants to area elementary schools for the Duluth Garden Flower Society's annual school harvest festivals, and he teaches kids how to care for them.

From his two greenhouses, Picconatto grew 1,000 plants this year for students, despite being treated for esophageal cancer.

"It's the only thing I like to do," Picconatto said of gardening. "When I see kids out on the street they say 'Mama, Daddy, there is the tomato man, Mr. Ray.' I get so excited. Right now, being sick, it perks me up."

Kids are pulled in by Picconatto's love for gardening and nurturing the earth, said Kathi Kusch Marshall, assistant principal at Nettleton Elementary in Duluth.

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"His love and passion for fruits and vegetables is something you can't teach," she said. "Most of the children here just don't have these opportunities. This has changed these children's lives."

Twelve area schools accepted tomato plants this year as part of an effort to teach kids to appreciate the art of growing, to understand where food comes from and to build self-esteem.

After learning from Picconatto and other society members about what to do with the tomato plants, kids bring them home over the summer and plant them. In the fall, they bring their grown tomatoes to be judged in county fair-style contests.

Students also grow other fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. About 100 entries -- including squash, cucumbers, apples, carrots and peppers -- were judged at Nettleton on Thursday. Picconatto and members of the society handed out mostly blue ribbons. Even a tomato that was squashed by the confines of a backpack received a ribbon.

Without Picconatto's devotion to the planting project, it couldn't reach as many schools as it has, said Tom Kasper, president of the society.

"(The project) is very important to them and even more important to Ray," Kasper said. "And it's another thing parents and kids can do together."

Many of the schools have open houses the night of the judging and use the tomatoes to make salsa. Picconatto loves talking with the kids, many who proudly show him the fruits of their labor.

The Nettleton students tracked their progress this year with tomato journals so "we could have deep conversations about the whole process," Kusch Marshall said.

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Second-grader Isaac Fink spent several minutes Thursday morning carefully lining up his cherry tomatoes, green peppers, Chinese lanterns and a single tiny carrot.

"I had one even smaller than that," he said. "And I kept watering my pumpkins, but they didn't show up. Watering is fun."

Picconatto recalled his own time as a child watering plants.

"When I was a child I had to," he said. "But today, that's my fun in life."

As he deals with intense radiation treatments, he probably won't be able to produce as many tomato plants for the next season, he said, predicting about 500.

"I'm hoping for a crop for next year," he said. "You can't give up."

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