Every year the most sought after vegetable is simply the tomato. Customers anxiously begin asking in May, “when will the tomatoes be ready?” And we patiently wait week after week, watching the plants grow and by July we begin pacing through the rows looking for any sign of a turning (ripening) tomato. Once the first few turn, we know it is a short time before we are inundated with this precious fruit. However, many customers aren’t aware of how tomatoes are produced commercially. When I was home gardening, tomatoes seemed to be a given. You transplanted, staked and trellised and waited, and sometime in July you were eating tomato sandwiches. It seemed so simple until we began growing them commercially.
My very first year farming I was so excited to plant the tomatoes. I had toured Weaver’s Farm in Kutztown and he specialized in heirloom tomatoes. After seeing row upon row of the different colors, shapes and sizes of tomatoes I couldn’t wait to get started. So, we decided to plant 50 different varieties of tomatoes starting the seed in February and nursing it along until it could be transplanted in May. I remember it being an abnormally wet year, but the tomatoes were growing by leaps and bounds. Towards the end of June I spotted a strange mark on many of the leaves in a specific section of the planting and took it into the Penn State Agricultural Extension Agency. They put the leaf under the microscope as I waited in the lobby. Then I received the worst news a tomato grower can receive. “We hate to inform you, but you have late blight and we are going to have to come take a look at the field and send these leaves to Cornell for further testing.” I asked if I could do anything about it and when they realized I was an organic grower they advised me to burn the planting and put broccoli in instead.
After that year we tried again, only to succumb to a plethora of diseases during another wet summer. This was the year of the hurricanes and the diseases ran rampant knocking out the tomatoes by the end of August. The following year we contracted late blight again, but this was the first year we planted a set of tomatoes in a high tunnel. We had some success in the high tunnel, but made mistakes with watering (didn’t water nearly enough) and many tomatoes succumbed to blossom end rot. But all was not lost! As the tomatoes in the field were dropping from blight, the high tunnel tomatoes did not contract the fungus. Once we realized that we could stop the diseases by keeping tomato leaves dry in a high tunnel, we knew that was our future. The following year we yet again lost our field planting to late blight and were able to pick tomatoes in the high tunnel, however, we had aphid outbreaks and powdery mildew that knocked back our yield.
Finally, we realized, aphids can be kept in check by releasing ladybugs and lacewigs and powdery mildew can be stopped by correctly pruning the plants. Finally we feel we are on the right track until the next disaster! Now, how do we do it? Well, we start our tomatoes in flats in late February. At this time they need to stay warm and well-watered. When they have one set of true leaves we transplant them into larger flats to give them more room. By April we begin hardening them off. We slowly get them acclimated to cooler temperatures by placing them outside for longer amounts of time each day. Finally, we plant them in the tunnel in mid to late April. It is still cold at this time so we will keep them covered with row covers inside the tunnel at nigh time. By the beginning of May they green up and begin growing rapidly. We begin watering twice a week at this time making sure the beds stay wet. We try to water the same amount every week to prevent cracking and splitting. Once the tomato is about 18in tall we use a vine clip to clip it to a string that is hanging from a wire on top of the high tunnel. Every week, the tomato plant grows another foot, so my father will prune off the suckers and clip it to the string again. We only allow the tomato to grow on one leader (main stalk). The tomato wants to send out other stalks, but we prune them off. This concentrates more of the plants energy into the fruit and allows for bigger tomatoes and a neater plant. It also prevents disease because the air can flow through the leaves and the sun can hit every leaf rapidly drying the dew in the morning (this is why it is hard for fungus to live in the tunnel). Once the tomato plant reaches the top of the string, we let more string out of the spool (picture below) and move the spool toward the front of the tunnel. We do this at the same time we pick the bottom set of tomatoes. When we move the spool we remove all the leaves up until the next set of tomatoes because the plant will now bend in an L shape. You can see this in the picture of the cherry tomatoes below. We continue to do this every week until the end of September when we finally call it quits.
As you can tell, this has taken many years to get right and at many times throughout the process my dad and I were very frustrated. We know longer grow tomatoes in the field and believe the organic production of tomatoes is far easier in a tunnel (at least for us). But you never know what will be the next obstacle to tackle. After all these years all I can say is I know for sure there will be one, which is what keeps it interesting!
This week's share consists of:
Full Share- red onions, cucumbers, eggplant, yellow wax beans, white carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, cilantro, head lettuce, blue potatoes
Half Share- red onions, cucumbers, eggplant, yellow wax beans, white carrots, tomatoes
What can I make with my share this week?? Here are a couple of ideas!
Tomato and Cucumber Sandwiches! This is one of our favorite things to eat and we enjoy it even more because it's so simple and can be customized to each person's taste right at the table. Oftens times it morphs into a BLT if I have time to cook up some bacon.
Greek Marinated Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini- http://thelemonbowl.com/2013/08/greek-marinated-grilled-eggplant-and-summer-squash.html