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Fresh, Local Is Key to Selling Tomatoes in Prince Edward Island

The Tomato Magazine
June 2007

By Kathy Birt

VanKampen’s 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 province’s 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
“We’ve 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 up.

“We also do a little restaurant business during the peak tourist season,” he continues, noting that this spring’s tomato crop is a little late due to lack of sunshine. While the greenhouse has cold storage capability, the family’s 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 Charlie.

Competitive Marketplace
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 acres.”

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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 won’t produce as many tomatoes.

With cucumbers, string beans, lettuce and three varieties of peppers also grown in the area, Charlie notes that their walk–in 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 Publishing

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