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Cloth Row Coverings Big Hit with Michigan's George Hemmeter

The Tomato Magazine
Feburary 2005

Hitting the July market window with his early tomatoes is very important to George Hemmeter of Hemmeter's Farms, Saginaw, Mich. This is the time to "make it or break it" in terms of a profitable season. Customers are anxious for fresh tomatoes and sweet corn and are willing to pay the price. Delay until the first of August, and that can be another story. Prices customarily drop.

Hemmeter markets tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn and a variety of other vegetables through a small, 50- by 80-foot pole shed on his farm built to serve customers, virtually all from the Saginaw area. Roughly 80 percent of his production goes through the outlet; the remaining 20 percent is marketed through small farmer's markets scattered along nearby highways.

Prefers Cloth Row Coverings
While the grower has been involved in greenhouse production in the past to help "push" his tomatoes toward earlier maturity, he's now using cloth row covers and is delighted with the results. Last year, his early tomatoes were ready to go by the 4th of July weekend, just in time for the barbecue and picnic crowd. He was able to take advantage of the higher prices paid during the month.

"In this part of Michigan, there is always a gap in tomato availability in the July market," Hemmeter smiles. "In June, the tomatoes pour in from the high tunnels in Canada and other places. Lots of greenhouse tomatoes are picked in Michigan in May and June, but then supplies run low and the price goes up in July."

Almost 10 years ago now, the grower began experimenting with row covers on strawberries and liked what he saw so much he began putting them on his tomatoes. While there was a learning curve, he soon began seeing the benefits.

"In the beginning, I planted small tomato transplants in the field and added the row covers," he explains. "This approach helped us push them along towards faster maturity but not as rapidly as I wanted. We were picking tomatoes by mid-July and I wanted them ready by the 4th of July."

Using gallon pots, Hemmeter switched to growing bigger plants in his greenhouse-about 8,000 of them. The change helped him bring off his new crop earlier but he nearly went broke due to the hand labor required to transplant the tomatoes into the field. Additional greenhouse space was also required to grow tomatoes in gallon pots. He even built an extra greenhouse.

Refining his process, Hemmeter switched to planting his tomato plants in 4-inch, quart-sized pots. This also seemed to produce bigger and healthier plants. As the plants were taken to the field, a water wheel constructed with an extra long spike was used to make a deeper hole in the raised beds. The plants were then planted in the newly formed beds. Once the plants were in and the drip irrigation in place, the tomatoes were staked, wire run along the tops and cloth added to cover and protect the rows.

"It's worked great," he smiles. "We began by covering two acres and pinning everything down. We used a one-ounce cover cloth that allows 70 percent light transfusion. Rye strips were planted in between for wind control."

It takes only a couple of hours to position the cloth and fasten it down. Available in rolls, the cloth is mounted on a portable machine made by a friend and carried in a wagon. Workers roll the material out while making their way down the rows. The process is simple and uncomplicated.
The cloth can be displaced by a heavy windstorm but is easy to reposition, the grower says.

At the end of the season, two workers can easily gather up the material and store it in tote boxes for reuse the following year. The cloth is good for at least three seasons and sometimes one more, the grower says. Overall cost is estimated at $1,400 to $1,500 per acre.

Row Coverings Versus High Tunnels
The cost of using high tunnels is considerably more, Hemmeter says. High tunnels also require more work adjusting plastic during changes in the weather.

"That can be a challenge in climates such as ours," the entrepreneur says. "One day we're experiencing 35- to 40-degree weather here with wind and then the sun comes out, it gets hot and you've got to have air in there. The next minute the clouds come over, it gets cold and you've got wind chill in the greenhouse tunnels and you have to cover the crop again. Weather conditions are ever changing.

"Cloth breathes, but when it gets to be 75 to 80 degrees out there, we do open up the ends of the rows and let the air come through," he notes. "While requiring some time, it is easier to manage. We keep the covers on the crop well into June until small green tomatoes begin to form, and then we take it off."

Ease of Pollination
Another major plus for going the cloth cover route is the ease in which pollination takes place, Hemmeter says. While pollination can be a problem in high tunnels, there has been none of that with the cloth. The wind creates a billowing effect, thoroughly pollinating the crop.
"The early blossoms on these 4-inch tomato plants pollinate all at once, and we generally see clumps of up to 20 early tomatoes," he says. "The young plants are cold-treated at 52-55 degrees for two weeks prior to being transplanted, and, when we do this, our first blossom clump is the largest. And that's exactly what we want here when we're after the early July market."

Hemmeter limits his use of nitrogen, especially early on, to curtail plant growth while encouraging a heavier tomato set. His plants seldom exceed 2 ½ feet tall but are loaded with tomatoes. His yields on the earlies in his two-acre field have been in the 42-ton range, excellent for Michigan.

"With these first tomato plants of the season I'm focused entirely on the early market. I'm not interested in extending production through August," he says. "Our goal, and we've been successful at it, is to hit the early market, make the money and get out. We do have another 4,000 plants for the later marketing season, when the prices customarily drop, but that is our secondary market."

A Rare Year
The 2004 season was abnormal, however, as the price for fall-harvested tomatoes shot to unbelievable heights. The nationwide tomato shortage was attributed to crop damage in California and Florida due to rain, hurricanes and abnormal weather.
Based on record prices received last fall, Hemmeter says he will be monitoring closely what's happens later this spring when the tomato planting season gets underway. "Everybody is going to be jumping on the bandwagon," he fears. "Too many will have it in their minds that they are going to grow tomatoes and make big money. It wouldn't surprise me that by next August, we'll be drowning in overproduction."
In addition to tomatoes, Hemmeter grows sweet corn, pumpkins, cucumbers, strawberries, squash, melons, peppers, string beans and green peas. He is also produces greenhouse-grown geraniums for the flower market and an assortment of annual bedding flowers and custom design hangers and planters.

Vegetable farming has been a long tradition in the Hemmeter family. George's grandfather, also known as George, purchased the original land in 1906. His son, Otto, younger George's father, took over the business in 1930 during the Great Depression. Born in 1947, grandson George grew up on the farm, worked in the fields and eventually took over the operation.

Today's Hemmeter businesses are run by family members: George's wife, Judy; his two daughters, Michelle Jorck and April Hemmeter-Lewis; and his son-in-law, Bruce Jorck, Michelle's husband. All help with management and have hands-on responsibilities.

The family farm has never been large in terms of acreage. The high for George is 143 acres. Next year, due to a loss of land to housing developments, he will be down to 118 to 120 acres but is excited about picking up a new track of black loam sand that he feels will be ideal for vegetable production.

How can a small enterprise survive? It's a matter of fine-tuning, the 2001 Great Lakes Vegetable Conference Master Vegetable Grower of the Year believes. Of prime importance is having nice looking, great tasting tomatoes.

"With our retail business, we try things to do a few things to draw people here," he smiles. "We some enticements -- sweet corn, ice cream, some fast food, including bacon fro BLTs, just enough to get people to taste our tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetables. Once they've done that, we know they'll be back."

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