It takes more than a green thumb to grow tomatoes, especially in Alberta where the weather is anything but fruit-friendly, says Carmen Ditzler.
"Tomatoes are the princesses of the plant world," says Ditzler, who runs Whiskey Creek Greenhouse in the foothills west of Calgary.
"Everything must be perfect for them: The perfect humidity, the perfect temperature, the perfect amount of nutrients.
"They are like children. And we're trying to raise them in a volatile environment, where the temperature can drop 10 degrees when a cloud goes over."
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Greg Perry and Carmen Ditzler check their vine-ripened tomatoes at Whiskey Creek Greenhouse.|
Growing and direct-selling vine-ripened and pesticide-free tomatoes, Ditzler and her husband Greg Perry have no intention of becoming big players in the greenhouse industry. But they take pride in knowing many consumers are picking their branded Whiskey Creek tomatoes over the more familiar B.C. Hothouse label.
"We can't believe it. The demand outstrips our supply. We pick 2,000 pounds a week, and the demand is double that," says Ditzler.
Between 1996 and 2000, greenhouse tomato production in Canada more than doubled, making it the most common greenhouse produce grown.
Most of Alberta's greenhouse tomato production is in Redcliff, near Medicine Hat, and the Lacombe area near Red Deer. But growing tomatoes on the prairies is not an easy way for a small business to make a living.
Ontario and B.C. lead national tomato production, with 136,622 tonnes and 57,920 tonnes, respectively. But with its extreme temperatures, Alberta produces only 3,812 tonnes of greenhouse tomatoes, worth $8.8 million, according to Statistics Canada 2004 figures.
Whiskey Creek's tomatoes have earned high marks in local restaurants and grocery stores, as well as Calgary's Community Natural Foods and Sunterra Market at Signal Hill.
Their robust flavour typifies what a tomato should taste like, says Ditzler. "When did we start to accept eating food that has no taste? We should be growing food that has flavour."
Ditzler and Perry's success after only two years of operation has not been without challenges. They've battled floods and gas shortages, and watched the temperature in their renovated greenhouse plunge to almost zero in several hours.
Having grown up on a mixed farm east of Lacombe, Ditzler longed to find her own rural retreat after graduating from the University of Alberta with a degree in physical education. She and Perry eventually purchased a home and dilapidated greenhouse near Millarville, southwest of Calgary.
Monitors in the greenhouse were primitive, constructed from salvaged parts. "It was a steep learning curve to understand the previous owner's inventions," says Perry, who refers to himself as the "fixer-upper".
Ditzler enrolled in the University of Guelph's distance learning course on greenhouse management, and picked up further tips from reading and consulting with others in the business.
They began with 380 plants using the nutrient film technique (NFT), a form of hydroponics where plants are placed in a trough, with a shallow nutrient solution flowing over the roots. Rock-wool cubes - made from basalt rock and chalk that is melted, spun and compressed - are used as the growing medium, with the plants trained to grow up strings to make use of the greenhouse's vertical space.
Two years later, they've expanded the greenhouse from 2,000 to 10,000 sq. ft. and now grow 1,550 plants, including cherry, roma and about 20 different types of heirloom tomatoes, from Black Krims to Green Zebras and Tiger Stripes. "We may not be a tomato empire, but we want to make a living doing this," says Ditzler.
The tomatoes receive tender care, picked directly into the cartons to ensure they are handled only once. A commercial tomato has to go through a grading machine and packing line, increasing its chances of bruising, she said.
The couple picks twice a week, delivering to stores within a day. Their tomatoes are sold for an annual contract price, with the stores then marking them up to as much as $3.99 a pound, more than four times the price of commercial tomatoes.
"It's not whether you can grow and sell, it's whether you can sell for enough," says Ditzler. "We've made ourselves a niche market, and people are willing to pay for the taste."
Their produce competes with Alberta's two main greenhouse tomato growers and packers - Red Hat Co-op and Pik-N-Pak Produce Direct - but direct-selling makes a difference, says Ditzler.
"We're not an economy of scale, but the public and grocery store managers like meeting the people who grow the food," she says. "We're serving an area of over one million people, so there's room for everyone."
Picking the tomatoes when they are ripe has much to do with the deep flavour, she says. Commercial field tomatoes are often picked when they are still green or pink, leaving them to ripen on the truck, or by using ethylene gas.
The water the plants grow in also boosts flavour, Ditzler says. The greenhouse receives its water from a nearby natural spring. "Considering tomatoes are about 90 per cent water, that can really make a difference in taste."
Whiskey Creek tomatoes are also cooled in the shade, not a fridge, which can harm their texture. And getting them to the customer within a day of picking also ensures freshness.
While harvesting runs from April through October, it's a 10-month business. Four-week-old seedlings arrive from B.C. in January. Blooms begin to form by the end of January, with bumblebees brought in for pollination. By turning the heat up at night, the plants are stressed, causing them to produce more fruit.
Ditzler controls pests by bringing in insects such as parasitic wasps that control white flies and thrips. Pruning is an ongoing process, encouraging the remaining fruit to size up.
Each day, Ditzler checks the monitors, ensuring all are working properly. Acid levels of the water must be controlled (tomatoes prefer slightly acidic water), and temperature and humidity levels must be frequently fine-tuned.
"We've learned to be a plumber and electrician, essentially a jack of all trades," Perry says.
But sometimes even that doesn't help, like the night there was a gas shortage in their line. An alarm in the house went off, and they discovered several of the greenhouse furnaces had gone out.
"I was just sick. There was ice on the inside of the greenhouse. It was only two degrees above freezing," Ditzler recalls. Hours later the problem was fixed, but the damaged plants cost them about $25,000 in lost revenue.
But those strokes of bad luck are easily forgotten, she says, when they bite into a plump, juicy tomato.
"Everything that is good about a tomato is really good about our tomatoes."
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at email@example.com)