The tomato sauce labels on grocery store shelves might conjure images of the Sicilian countryside, but one family hopes Ohioans don’t forget about a business in their own back yard.
“If it’s got our name on it, it came from right here in northwest Ohio,” said Steve Hirzel, whose family produces the Dei Fratelli brand of tomato products.
More than two decades ago, it was a growing interest in far-away foods that helped build the Italian-themed brand, but today’s consumers are more interested in buying local, according to Hirzel. As customers ask questions about how their food made it to their plates, he is eager to provide the answers.
Consider that it only takes about 6 to 10 hours for a Dei Fratelli tomato to go from a local farm into its final container. The end product, be it pasta sauce, diced tomatoes or tomato juice, uses “strictly ingredients that you can understand as a consumer,” Hirzel said.
“You read it, you can say `Oh wow, it’s basil, oregano, garlic, onion, pepper,'” he said, noting there are no preservatives or additives.
Nearly half of the farmers are within 10 miles of one of the company’s three Ohio processing facilities. The company even has its own greenhouse where it germinates tomato seeds.
“That’s where local rings very true and we live it every day,” Hirzel said. “One of the secrets behind a high quality product in a can or a glass jar is the high quality fruit coming in from the farm. We can’t make it any better; we can only preserve how good it is coming out of the field.”
If it came right down to it, Hirzel – aided by satellite tracking and meticulous record keeping – could pluck a jar off of the store shelf and within 15 minutes tell you the field in which the tomatoes inside were grown.
That might lead you to Brad Cherry. Working with his dad and brother, Cherry grows 185 acres of tomatoes for Hirzel Canning in addition to operating a grain farm and farm market.
Tomatoes are fun to grow, said the Putnam County Farm Bureau member, although they’re a lot more work. For example, Cherry can plant 15 to 20 acres of tomatoes in a day compared to 200 acres of corn or soybeans. While he might never know just where his corn or soybeans end up, he likes being able to say that tomatoes in Dei Fratelli products could have come from his farm.
“It does give you a sense of pride to say that it is a small group of growers that are all local,” he said.
Having a contract with the nearby processing plant also gives him a steadier income from a crop that he might not otherwise be able to sell.
“It would be hard to get rid of 5,000 tons (of tomatoes) on the open market,” Cherry said.
That doesn’t mean he can produce any old tomato, though. To work with the Hirzels, he knows he must produce a high quality product.
“I think they’re very proud of what they do,” he said.
Still, this raises the question, is a northwestern Ohio tomato worth boasting about? Hirzel, for one, will tell you that you don’t have to always look to sunny California for great produce.
“We’re really blessed with some of the best soil and a climate that’s really conducive to growing tomatoes,” he said, adding that Ohio also has plentiful water. “This is one fantastic place and that’s why there’s still an industry here.”
Ohio State University has also been a resource for commercial tomato growers by breeding varieties with helpful traits, such as a uniform ripening date. That’s important as tomatoes grown for processing are harvested all at once by machine.
In all, Ohio produced nearly 6,000 acres of processing tomatoes in 2007, and ranked third nationally in total production. Fresh tomatoes totaled 4,300 acres, placing Ohio sixth nationwide.
New State Fruit
Earlier this year, children from a rural Fayette County elementary school successfully lobbied lawmakers to make the tomato the state fruit of Ohio. It beat out other suggestions including the paw-paw (now the state’s official native fruit. See article on page 20.) and the apple. Tomato juice has been the state’s official beverage since 1965.
Ohioans weren’t always so keen on tomatoes, though. According to the Ohio Historical Society, many settlers feared they were poisonous. Tomatoes didn’t make it into Ohioans’ gardens until the 1840s and commercial production began toward the end of the 19th century.
Last year, tomatoes again got a bum rap after they were blamed for a salmonella outbreak that was later linked to peppers from Mexico. Hirzel hopes the efforts of his company will reassure consumers about their food.
“Let’s face it, a lot of people are becoming less trustful of their food supply, and it’s important for us to share with them that there is a safe food supply out there. We have a very good one. This country does too,” he said.
His own tomato ties stretch back to 1923 when his great-grandfather started the business by growing cabbage for sauerkraut. Tomatoes soon followed, and now the company has more than 100 full-time employees plus a couple hundred seasonal workers. There are nine fourth-generation family members that are owner operators and three from the third generation that are still involved. Some of the local farmers who provide tomatoes have also had a relationship with the company for generations.
But when it comes to the company’s signature fruit (yes, botanically speaking, tomatoes are a fruit) there is still room for growth. For example, the company has started composting some of its leftover product with other byproducts from the community and applying it back to the fields.
“We do about everything imaginable with tomatoes,” Hirzel said.
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Hirzel Canning Co. & Farms
411 Lemoyne Rd.