Fresh, Local Is Key to Selling Tomatoes in Prince Edward
The Tomato Magazine
By Kathy Birt
VanKampens history in greenhouse tomato production dates back to
the 1950s in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, when 58 Allen Street
was barren of any other commercial property.
Today, this two-acre greenhouse operation is right in the midst of one
of the busiest streets in the provinces capital city. A major supermarket
chain is across the street, and on the other corner is an outlet for a
major drug store chain. Both bring a lot of traffi c to the downtown core.
This all bodes well for a greenhouse that has positioned itself for competition
in the 21st century. With one acre of hydroponically grown tomatoes and
one acre devoted to the gardening sector, sibling owners Charlie and Bill
VanKampen are able to offer fresh, local tomatoes as early as May 1. Both
likely learned how to walk in a greenhouse setting.
Charlie and Bill can trace the beginnings of their family business back
to their father, Gus. He got started when the area was just a clay
road, Charlie remembers.
Over the years, Gus established a solid family business that continues
to enrich its reputation under the guidance of his two sons.
A History of Performance
Weve been here for a long time and are well-known. That gives
us an advantage in the market place, says the Charlie, the senior
brother, talking about the changes made over the years and the challenges
of doing business in a competitive market place.
It was in the mid 1980s that the greenhouse switched to hydroponics, a
nutrient film technique for growing tomatoes. Constantly recycling of
water and fertilizers, the system was once well ahead of its time.
Today, hydroponic tomato production is much more in vogue. We are
now in a world where recycling (water and fertilizer) is the direction
most greenhouses are going, he explains.
Costing more than $40,000 to install, Charlie said the investment has
more than paid off. Ten thousand gallons of water are constantly being
recycled. The system has proven both environmentally acceptable and a
more uniform way of growing the crop.
The water is consistent throughout the entire crop, and this ensures
that the pH and fertilizer content is identical for every plant,
says Charlie, adding that close computer monitoring of the system, with
all necessary checks and balances in place, enables the growers to catch
most mistakes instantly.
With everything constant, including the temperature, the greenhouse owner
says it is possible to be in the perfect zone.
While most operators grow only one tomato crop per year, it is possible
to produce two--and the VanKampens have done so in the past. If
there is any disease or an exceptionally hot summer, we can tear out (the
crop) in August and replace it, Charlie points out. It depends
on the economics, but we are going more and more to a longer, single crop.
Seed for the hydroponically grown crop comes from the Netherlands, although,today,
most plants are grafted in instead of starting over from scratch.
For us that would mean buying expensive plant material, hence, replacing
everything would be quite costly, he says.
Ready by Mid-April
The tomato crop is ready for harvesting in mid-April. Walk-in customers
seeking other annuals and perennials crops grown also frequently buy tomatoes
or those there to buy tomatoes may also pick up these other crops. It
works both ways and is valuable to their business.
We sell only about 10 percent of our tomato crop off the Island.
We sell to some local supermarkets, but walkin customers are our best
market, Charlie admits.
The luscious red tomatoes are shipped Island wide. Some of the crop is
sold through brokers, but, in most cases, is sold directly to the stores.
Tyler Jorgensen, in charge of sales, agrees that wholesale is still the
primary market. However, walk-ins numbers increase as the weather warms
We also do a little restaurant business during the peak tourist
season, he continues, noting that this springs tomato crop
is a little late due to lack of sunshine. While the greenhouse has cold
storage capability, the familys tomatoes are rarely kept for more
than two or three days, the brothers say. This enables them to maintain
their reputation for always delivering quality, fresh tomatoes.
By the month of August, the market (for tomatoes) usually has bottomed
out in terms of price. Most people have some tomatoes in their gardens
well into September. Later, as we get into October and
experience frost, we see the demand for tomatoes increasing again and
look at growing a possible second crop when that happens, explains
Like most agriculture sectors, the entrepreneur notes that marketing tomatoes
has become intensely competitive. More and more, you have to have
volume, he explains. With only one acre, we are
just a small player compared to others (nationally who have three to five
Their operation is one of only two tomato greenhouses on PEI. Greenhouse
vegetables production is declining in the Maritime provinces (New Brunswick,
Nova Scotia and PEI), Charlie believes,
feeling that the price structure in Ontario may be a factor. The
Maritimers dont care to have a large tomato, and the Ontario market
is based on size, he says. There is a premium for extra large
and a lower price for mediums and smalls in Ontario.
The Ontario medium and smalls come to the Maritimes at a lower price,
while growers (in Ontario) keep at least 80 percent of their large tomato
crop to sell locally at the higher premium.
That doesnt work for us here. With the Ontario competition,
we get the price of their mediums and smalls for our entire crop (no matter
what size the tomato), he frowns. Because of this, the question
for Island greenhouse growers is, why grow large tomatoes? Jorgensen points
out that if the clusters are pruned back too much, they become vegetative
and wont produce as many tomatoes.
With cucumbers, string beans, lettuce and three varieties of peppers also
grown in the area, Charlie notes that their walkin customers do
have a few more choices. Growing one product, like tomatoes, is
sometimes hard to entice people to buy. With the other vegetables we can
offer something fresh, year-round, and our advantage will always be that
we can sell right out the door.
© 2007 Columbia
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