Nestled in their containers or still clinging to the vine, the tomatoes look perfect. But take a bite and the taste can be bland. Figuring out if a tomato sold in the winter or early spring is fresh tasting can be tricky. Lucas County Farm Bureau member Wade Smith wants to take the guesswork out of whether that off-season tomato will taste as good as it looks. He is growing his tomatoes hydroponically (growing plants without soil) and not harvesting them until they are ripe and at their peak in flavor. Out-of-state producers often harvest their tomatoes before they ripen so they can survive the long trip to Ohio and still look good in grocery stores several days later.
“There’s nothing worse than biting into a bad tomato. It can be enough to steer you away from tomatoes,” said Smith, a third generation tomato farmer who runs Whitehouse Specialty Crops, LLC.
Smith grew up in the tomato business. Family members were truck farmers, meaning they grew fruits and vegetables for nearby canneries. Because the tomatoes were processed, the taste didn’t matter as much.
“As a kid, I was fed a lot of bad tomatoes. I didn’t really know what a tomato was supposed to taste like until I started growing my own,” he said.
Smith has a 15-acre farm and three small greenhouses in Whitehouse, growing the off-season tomatoes and more than 800 varieties of daylilies. He started the tomato side of the business in 2009, inspired by a trip he took through Maumee Valley Growers to Belgium to learn about using hydroponics to grow tomatoes year-round.
“My wife thought I was nuts. I started plugs the week I got back,” Smith said. “I took my wife Holly overseas so she could understand what I was doing.”
Smith currently has 144 plants in his greenhouse near Toledo, growing the goliath, supersonic and jet star varieties that typically grow well hydroponically. The plants are anchored in bags of sphagnum peat moss with nutrients added directly to the root systems. This process puts less stress on the roots, which don’t have to spread out and search for water and nutrients. Smith knows he’s about 40 days away from harvest when pinkie size tomatoes start showing up on the plants.
Smith is constantly looking for suckers, or side sprouts, to cut off so the nutrients can be more evenly distributed. Because the inside of a greenhouse is like a petri dish, pests and fungi are a problem. Smith combs through his plants every day, looking for aphids and white flies. “Prevention is worth its weight in gold” is his motto. He avoids using chemicals to treat problems, instead using predatory bugs such as ladybugs, which eventually find their way out of the greenhouse and into nearby fields. Sometimes a simple smell will alert him to a problem.
“You can smell right away if you have an issue in your greenhouse,” Smith said.
On a gray day in late March, grocery store owner Jim Sautter was in Smith’s 68 degree greenhouse, checking out the tomato plants’ progress. He was interested in buying the entire crop as soon as it was ripe. His off-season tomatoes typically come from Florida and Canada.
“I’ll take it all because I know I can sell it,” said Sautter, who has two specialty grocery stores. “My customers want local products that are pesticide free. People want to know how their food is grown and this is the perfect fit for my store.”
Smith has big plans for his tomato business. This summer he plans to put up a 12,000-square-foot greenhouse for 2,500 tomato plants that will produce fruit March through November. He will go from 250 pounds per week to 2,500-3,000 pounds per week. The tomatoes will be sold at local stores and farmers markets.
Smith, who used to work in real estate, loves working in the greenhouse and teaching his three young children how plants grow and the science behind it.
“My kids get to work with the plants and learn something different than playing on a computer,” he said. “It gets them outside and teaches them biology. It’s a great way to run a business and raise a family.”
Bees are vital for pollination. So what do you do when all your plants and flowers are in a greenhouse? To save time and labor, Wade Smith brings in a box of bees and releases them so they can do their business throughout his greenhouse. When it gets dark, the bees go back into the box to rest. Smith said this is a popular method in other countries. The alternative is to pollinate each plant with a device that looks like a battery operated toothbrush. That’s doable for the 144 tomato plants Smith has now but not for the 2,500 he will have later this year.
Ohio is the fourth largest producer of tomatoes in the United States, and the largest U.S. ketchup processing plant is in Fremont.
Source: USDA NASS Ohio Field Office, Heinz
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Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.