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Summer Fresh Tomatoes
Available Year-Round

By Arie Vandergiessen Chief Operating Officer Backyard Farms

The Tomato Magazine
April 2008

There is a revolution happening in the U.S., and it is connected to buying locally grown produce.  Whether at family meals or in restaurants, Americans are enjoying the delicious taste of local dairy, vegetables and fruits. 

Some produce, such as tomatoes, historically en available locally only during the summer months, now have wider distribution and are now available year-round. This is largely due to advancements in greenhouse technology.

Automatic Grow Lamps
Keeping tomatoes on the vine until they are fully ripened is half the battle. One of the technologies that helps accomplish this is automatic grow lamps. They combat low light levels in the greenhouses during fall and winter months, when less than 15 percent of the light found during the summer is available. Poor lighting can greatly reduce fruit yield. Low intensity “photoperiodic” light is also used during the night to break the darkness period and induce plant responses representative of summer. This is especially important in New England greenhouses, where winter can bring extremely cold and low light conditions.

Temperature Control
Because temperatures below 70° F prevent normal pollination and fruit development, many heat technologies, such as thermal blankets and heated gutters, are employed by today’s greenhouses. Thermal blankets reduce heat loss during cold weather, and heated gutters funnel rainwater to the tomatoes year-round. Greenhouses also use a heat capture system that stores thermal energy for night-time use since tomato plants grow best when the night temperature is maintained at 60°-62° F. All of these heating methods maintain ideal growing conditions and are environmentally-friendly.

Irrigation Technology
Irrigation technology provides tomatoes with a consistent water supply. The application of water is typically done with a trickle irrigation system composed of distribution lines with drip tubes or spray stakes which are placed at the base of each plant. Tomato plants use a great deal of water, especially in warm weather, so the use of a time clock to control the irrigation system is crucial. Some farms strive to protect the environment and minimize water consumption through a water recycling system. Any additional water not used in this process is held in irrigation ponds for future use. This method helps the plants and protects the environment by conserving groundwater reserves.

Pest Management Systems
Pest management is another important concern in modern greenhouses. An integrated pest management system which utilizes naturally occurring biological controls and beneficial insects to ensure that its growing processes are environmentally-friendly is integral to the success of any large greenhouse. One insect that is far from being a pest is the bee. Bees are extremely important in the greenhouse because every tomato starts with the native bumblebees that receive their food from tomato pollen, and in turn, fertilize the plants’ flowers. Tomato flowers must be pollinated seven days a week in order to ensure proper fruit development. Traditionally, flower clusters are shaken manually with a tomato flower pollinator as soon as the yellow petals open, but bumblebees are available from insect companies for pollination as well. Using bees for pollination ensures a higher yield and the production of more delicious fruit.

Backyard Farms
With its state-of-the-art greenhouse in Madison, Maine, Backyard Farms uses a combination of all of these technologies to grow its tomatoes. The company has 11,000 specialized 1,000-watt lights, controlled by computer to mimic what the sun would provide under ideal conditions for photosynthesis. These lights supplement natural sunlight by allowing tomatoes to receive the same amount of light year-round, regardless of the weather outside. Backyard Farms also uses temperature-stable transit to keep the plants at 55º F during travel — the ideal temperature for maximum freshness and flavor. Local growers, like Backyard Farms, have the advantage of complete control over the transit temperature, so tomatoes are never over-refrigerated or left in the sun like those that travel long distances. And for irrigation, Backyard Farms has the advantage of size. Its 24-acre greenhouse allows it to recycle water by capturing all of the rain that falls on the greenhouse roof for use in the irrigation process.

Have Great Taste
Despite all these high-tech innovations, the farm’s greenhouse tomatoes taste just like those grown in your backyard garden. Hydroponically grown produce actually arrives at retail outlets in better shape than field grown produce because it is developed in highly controlled conditions. The tomatoes are generally cleaner, handled less and packaged better than field grown products. The great quality and high demand for these tomatoes ensures even more greenhouse advancements in the future.

© 2008 Columbia Publishing

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