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Niche Marketing

Making a Processing Variety Work on the Fresh Market

The Tomato Magazine
June 2005


Can a processing tomato line prove profitable on the fresh market?

Dave Rietveld, a Kouts, Ind. grower, thinks so. He is in his second year of developing a small, but important, niche market selling a line of roma processing tomatoes to fresh market customers in the Chicago area. Working through a grocery outlet, the tomatoes are sold to predominantly Italian clientele in some of Chicago’s diverse ethnic communities who prefer to make their own pastas and tomato sauce. They buy his tomatoes by the bushels.

A third-generation tomato grower, Dave grew 20 acres of processing Romas for his Chicago customer last year, and he plans to boost that to 45 acres this year. His major tomato acreage is with Red Gold, an Elwood, Ind. processor that contracts whole-peeled tomatoes with area growers. He grew 245 acres for Red Gold in 2004.

Unlike his Red Gold-designated tomatoes, which are machine harvested, the Chicago-bound Romas are all hand picked.

“We’re optimistic about the possibilities for this new market niche,” Dave smiles. “We have a pretty loose agreement to ship a predetermined quantity of loads per week during the season, but we are also talking with other brokers and interested parties that should lead to additional demand.”

Most of the Romas are Heinz varieties.

Red Gold Producer
Admittedly, Dave is excited about his expanded fresh market possibilities, but meeting the needs of his major processor, Red Gold, remains his major focus. Growing processing tomatoes has been an important segment of the family business for many years.

Dave’s grandfather, Gerritt Rietveld, was the first in the family to venture into processing tomatoes, growing and hand picking them for the Campbell Soup Company, beginning in the early 1940s. His farm was within close proximity of the company’s plant on the south-side of Chicago.

The business arrangement came to an abrupt end in the mid-1960s, when Campbell’s management built a new plant in Napoleon, Ohio, and announced it was shutting down its older, antiquated facility in Chicago.

“That board-room decision basically put us out of the tomato business for a number of years,” Dave remembers.

In the early 1970s, Glenn Rietveld, who began farming with his father shortly after World War II, sold off the family’s Illinois farm holdings and moved the farming enterprise to Kouts, Ind. The sandy loam soil at the new site, along with ample sources of available irrigation water, was ideal for growing tomatoes, onion sets, seed corn, soybeans and other crops.

Later, Dave, representing the third generation of family members to enter the family business, joined his father in 1977. He had just completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

“At the time, I had made plans to pursue an advanced degree in agricultural economics at either Purdue or the University of Illinois but decided instead to come back to the farm,” Dave remembers. “My wife was working in downtown Chicago at the time, and one Friday afternoon, while going to pick her up from work, I was stuck in traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway. While there, the thought came, ‘You know, I really don’t want to be a part of this rat race.’ All of a sudden, the farm out in Indiana and the opportunity to get started farming with my dad looked especially inviting.”

While Glenn Rietveld has since retired, the diversified farm he helped get off of the ground has tripled in size under son, Dave. Today, there are approximately 1,500 acres involved.

Became Heinz Grower
In 1983, representatives from the Heinz Company came into the Kouts area, searching for additional tomato acreage. They needed the extra production to service both their Fremont, Ohio, and Muscatine, Iowa processing plants. Kouts growers, who were within 10 miles of being exactly half way in between both plants geographically, were ideally located to supply tomatoes to either plant, depending upon the need.

“We started with them that first year, and, soon, it was a whole new ballgame,” Dave reminisces. “During the era when we were growing tomatoes south of Chicago, everything was hand picked; today, however, everything is harvested by machine. Back in the mid-‘60s there had been a lot of talk about machine harvesting coming, but, at that time, it was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon.”

Of course, the technology eventually came—as well as putting a man on the moon—and the rest is history. Today, all of Red Gold’s contracted processing tomatoes are machine harvested.

In the early 1990s, after less than a decade of doing business with Heinz, the company announced it was shutting down its Midwest operations in favor of doing business in California, Dave says. The bottom line was growers, with no immediate alternatives, were left “high and dry.”

“Fortunately, there were enough hints that this decision was in the making that we already were exploring our options with Red Gold and other canneries in Indiana,” the grower recalls. “Privately owned, Red Gold management wanted to boost its production and was looking for irrigated, sandier soil, such as we have here. Contracts were offered, and it turned out to be a good deal for both sides. Our relationship continues to this day.”

Some tweaking in the way the family grew its tomatoes was immediately required. One adjustment was that most tomatoes sold to Heinz were for paste products versus Red Gold’s whole-peel operation.

Processor Dictates Its Needs
As when dealing with most tomato processors, Red Gold makes the major decisions when to plant, which varieties to grow and when to harvest, Dave points out. Growers are given some options on variety selections, for example, and can express their preferences.

One of the reasons for a heavy processor voice is Red Gold’s management team must work out a reasonable processing schedule. With growers in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, it is critical that not all contracted tomatoes show up for processing at the same time. Red Gold is now the single largest tomato processor in the Midwest.

Planting and Harvesting Determinations
“This year, we began planting tomatoes on May 5,” Dave notes. “Our planting schedule was determined from the harvest schedule. The harvest flow into the plant is figured first, and then they back that into a planting schedule to come up with our planting dates.”

The first of this year’s crop is expected to come off in mid-August. The harvest will continue until around Oct. 10, or whenever the first heavy frost strikes.

“At planting, we’re using greenhouse transplants,” the grower explains. “In our earlier years with Heinz, we used field-grown, bare root transplants from Georgia. We also tried direct seeding, but it never worked as well as in California. Whenever we got a cold snap—and we often did—the seed, if it hadn’t already come up, would just sit there. That would throw the whole schedule out of whack.”

To resolve the challenge, the grower switched to greenhouse transplants. There are six or eight authorized growers producing Red Gold-approved varieties. He currently uses two: Rock Kietzer of Kietzer Farms in Hartford, Mich., and Mobley Plant Co. out of Moultrie, Ga. A Mechanical Transplanter, manufactured in Holland, Mich., is used to place the young seedlings.

Red Gold growers have the option of planting on either raised beds or flats. The Rietvelds have opted for raised beds with two rows per bed approximately 14 inches apart.
“We use a 64-inch spacing,” the grower says. “Most growers go with either 60- or 66-inch beds, but we’re using a 64-inch bed. The major reason is before we started planting tomatoes, we were using that size bed in our onion set program, and that spacing worked well. We can work both crops without having to adjust the spacing on our equipment. We decided that we were close enough to that 66-inch standard recommendation that there would be no noticeable difference in yield or quality…and that has proven to be the case.”

Whether it is tomatoes, onion sets, seed corn or soybeans, all crops on the farm are under center pivot irrigation. There may sometimes be adequate summertime rainfall, but even during the spring, moisture levels are unpredictable. Getting the crop off to a good start is considered important enough to justify the investment as well as having the ability to supplement the summertime rain totals.

Disease/Weather Challenges
One of the major production challenges for tomato growers in this part of Indiana is excess rain at harvest time. Rainy days can raise havoc with delivery schedules. Fortunately, the sandier soil enables the growers to get back in the fields quicker. Equipment used is also less prone to bog down.

Another big help was finding the right kind of tomato harvester.

“When we first began growing for Heinz in 1983, we went to California to see and learn what they were doing, particularly at harvest time,” Dave remembers. “We soon discovered that the big, high capacity harvesters used in California worked fine when we had “California-like” conditions here at home. But they did not work that great when we experienced wetter conditions. They would mire down and take in too much mud. Pull-type harvesters have worked much better here.”

Rietveld uses a Pik-Rite, made in Lewisburg, Penn.
With the humidity levels frequently high in the summertime, the family’s tomatoes are challenged with diseases such Anthracnose, Early Blight, Late Blight, Septoria Leaf Blight, Bacterial Speck and Bacterial Spot. Bacterial diseases can be especially serious since they affect the internal quality of the whole-peeled tomatoes they sell. A regular spray schedule is a critical necessity.

In addition to his farming responsibilities, Dave shoulders a full-time job as a consultant with ERC Machinery, an international manufacturer based in the Netherlands, that manufactures onion toppers and other related equipment used primarily in onion packing houses. He also is in his first year as president of the National Onion Association, a nationwide organization.

Dave and his wife, Judy, have three children: Kari Vandervelde, married and living with her husband, John, and one-year-old grandson, Brayden, in Eagle River, Wis.; Joel, an investment analyst and equity manager with Goldman-Sachs in Chicago; and Leslie, their second daughter, a sophomore psychology major at Wheaton College.

© 2005 Columbia Publishing

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