Thomas J. ‘Tom’ McCarthy, a farmer whose beans were a staple of Baltimore farmers markets, dies

Thomas J. "Tom" McCarthy grew tomatoes, okra, cantaloupes and watermelon but was perhaps best-known for his varieties of beans.

Thomas J. “Tom” McCarthy, a Caroline County farmer who scooped his early June peas and summertime beans to twisting lines of customers at Baltimore’s outdoor markets, died of a heart attack Sept. 24 at his Greensboro home. He was 86.

“When people came to the markets, they said, ‘Where are the beans? And you knew where to send them.’ Tommy was a character and was attractive to a lot of people. They liked his little bit of angst,” Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder said.


Born Thomas John McCarthy in Long Branch, New Jersey, he was the son of Thomas McCarthy, a hospital financial administrator, and Ann Collins, a teacher. He was raised on the grounds of the now-closed Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, which included a 500-acre working farm.


He was also attracted to life on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Freehold and learned trapping. He caught muskrats in the marshes.

“He was a hard worker, and he definitely did his own thing. Whatever he sold was consistent, and his customers liked that,” Mr. Bartenfelder said.

Mr. McCarthy attended St. James School and was a 1954 graduate of Red Bank Catholic High School. He earned a geophysics degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied at Columbia University.

He joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and was stationed briefly at a Florida Army base during the Cold War.

He initially worked with his father in an electrical engineering business in Manhattan and also did construction work in Washington, D.C.

After nearly 50 years, he made a career change and bought what became his McCarthy Farm on Holly Road in Greensboro in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore. He began by raising hogs.

After the Baltimore Farmers’ Market opened in 1978, he began selling produce and established a devoted customer base. He later set up on Saturday mornings at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly.

Friends said Mr. McCarthy liked offering what other farmers were not selling.


He adhered to a seasonal selling cycle — asparagus and strawberries in the spring, followed by early June shelled peas that he personally scooped from plastic tubs laced with ice cubes.

His customers knew his signature peas were popular and that there was a limited supply.

He engaged them in conversation so that the line for the peas often snaked around the market.

“I remember Tommy’s great smile. He looked directly into your eyes and was personable,” said a customer, Joanna Cox. “He remained personable, unhurried, even where there was a line.”

Mr. McCarthy also raised his own tomatoes — grown in plastic hoop houses. He sold okra, cantaloupes and watermelon, but was perhaps best-known for his signature product: beans. He grew fresh shelled lima beans and butter beans, speckled beans, black beans, red beans, navy beans, crowder peas, October beans and black-eyed peas.

He owned 250 acres nearly 2 miles outside Greensboro.


Becky Ball, his assistant, said Mr. McCarthy was picking lima and speckled butter beans the day before he died.

“Tom never ate his own produce,” she said. “He was a salad person, and he loved spinach.”

She said he enjoyed a simple life.

“He was all about his farm,” she said. “He did go on a cruise once and became homesick.”

Ms. Ball said he was once hospitalized to repair his knee and developed other medical complications.

“Being in a hospital and away from his farm drove him crazy,” she said. “He was stubborn and hardheaded.”


He came home, recuperated, but took a fall.

“He opened his wound — there was blood everywhere. While we were waiting for an ambulance to come, he looked up and said, ‘Can you fix me a bowl of cereal while we are waiting for these people?’”

Marc Rey, manager of the 32nd Street Market, said: “Tom told me he hated inefficiency, and he felt our market was well-run. He impressed me as somebody who loved farming — and was personally proud of the bean-shelling equipment.

“One day, while I was visiting his farm, he pointed to his field of okra. Okra has beautiful, bright yellow flowers. He beamed when he showed this. He took great pride in and devoted time to his meticulous fields,” Mr. Rey said.

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“The quality of his product was high,” Mr. Rey said. “People couldn’t wait until his asparagus and strawberries came in. He arrived early in the spring with his best asparagus in April this year, and he would stay until Christmas with the crops that were still in season.”


Mr. Rey said that Mr. McCarthy was among the earliest arrivers at the market.

“He came early because he didn’t want to be held up by vacationers’ traffic on the Bay Bridge. He’d arrive between 4:30 and 5 a.m. The market opens at 7 a.m. People who wanted to get first pickings would be standing in line for him, sometimes in the dark.”

“He was always willing to talk about his product. He told me he loved our customers in a personal way. He felt they were knowledgeable and appreciative,” Mr. Rey said.

Survivors include his two sisters, Ellen McManus of Holland, Michigan, and Kathleen Farrell of Ireland; three nieces; and two nephews.

A graveside service will be held Thursday at the Greensboro Cemetery.