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Tastier Winter Tomatoes, Thanks To A Boom In Greenhouse Growing

Nov 29, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 5:36 am

It may sound like an oxymoron: a delicious local, winter tomato — especially if you happen to live in a cold climate.

But increasingly, farmers from West Virginia to Maine and through the Midwest are going indoors to produce tomatoes and other veggies in demand during the winter months. "There's a huge increase in greenhouse operations," Harry Klee of the University of Florida tells us.

And surprisingly, according to skeptical foodies like chef Todd Wiss, the best greenhouse tomatoes come incredibly close to reproducing that taste of a perfectly ripe, summer garden tomato. "It's amazing," Wiss says after trying a greenhouse-grown Gary Ibsen's Gold heirloom tomato.

These are a far cry from the flavorless supermarket tomatoes typically found this time of year. When tomatoes are shipped long distances, they're usually harvested before they're ripe, which compromises taste. Plus, as we've reported before, some of the flavor of those supermarket varieties has been accidentally bred out.

The advantage of the new greenhouse model is that the tomatoes are grown not far from the cities where they're sold and eaten. And it's the locavore ethos that's driving this trend. "What's harvested today will be delivered to stores tomorrow," says Paul Mock of Mock's Greenhous and Farm in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Mock's business has boomed in the last few years, as retailers such as Wegmans and Whole Foods in the D.C., metro area snap up his heirloom and cherry tomatoes, as well as cucumbers and lettuces.

"There were times I had to pound the pavement" to sell produce, Mock says. Now he's being paid a premium, since "locally grown" produce is in high demand. "I'm finally having fun."

Now even New Englanders can get summertime-tasting, fresh tomatoes grown not too far from home. In Maine, Backyard Farms is leading the way. And vertical greenhouses are changing the landscape, too, from the new garden spot at Chicago's O'Hare Airport to Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole, Wyo., which is just getting started.

So how do they grow? Many of these operations are turning to hydroponic farming, which means the plants are not grown in soil.

As we've reported before, soil is one key component of tomato flavor, but it's not the only one. The hydroponic tomatoes get their nutrients (and fertilizer) from liquid solutions fed directly via irrigation hoses. This typically requires less water and less land than traditional farming.

In fact, it uses up to 10 times less land and seven times less water per pound, according to Kate Siskel of BrightFarms, a company that's scaling up local produce by building greenhouses at or near supermarkets

Mock says there's another advantage of indoor growing: "We've had very little damage from bugs." And he's been able to avoid using chemicals on the leaves or fruit of his plants.

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It's that time of year when tomatoes usually start to look and taste a little sad. Their color can seem flat, their texture a bit mealy. But there's a new hope for winter tomatoes.

As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, farmers in cold winter climates, from Virginia to Maine, are reproducing the taste of summer 12 months a year.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you want to know what separates a good tomato from a bad tomato, Todd Wiss is a good guy to ask. He's a professional chef and a tomato lover.

TODD WISS: It's all about the smell. And you smell it, you smell the Earth, you can smell the soil. You can almost taste it.

AUBREY: I caught up with Wiss in the kitchen of Firefly Restaurant in D.C. He's the chef de cuisine here, and he goes out of his way to buy local produce. I've come with a challenge: Could the tomato that I've brought with me today - Wiss has no idea where it came from - taste anywhere near as good as the kind of ripe, summer tomatoes he loves? Wiss says he's very skeptical.

WISS: This time of year it's hard. You can just tell by looking at it. If it's opaque in color it's probably off.

AUBREY: But when he inspects the tomato that I brought, which is a bright golden yellow, his face lights up.

WISS: Wow, it's a beautiful tomato. It's got a nice color to it, nice texture. If it tastes as good as it looks, I think we're going to be in for a real surprise.

AUBREY: Now, we'll get to a taste test in a minute. But I should explain that the tomatoes we usually get this time of year are typically trucked in from Florida or other faraway warm climates. And they're grown from seeds that are known to produce tough tomatoes. It's intentional because the tomatoes need to withstand the wear and tear of travel and have a very long shelf life, which can compromise their taste.

But this bright yellow tomato we're about the taste is different. It was grown pretty close to here, not in a field but inside a greenhouse, about a 90-minute drive away in West Virginia. This is something you never would've seen here a decade ago. The day I went for a visit, it was cold, there was frost on the ground, and the owner, Paul Mock, gave me a tour.

PAUL MOCK: This is one seven greenhouses.

AUBREY: As we stepped inside, the temperature rises dramatically.

It's summer all year round here in the greenhouse, huh?

MOCK: Yeah, it's - yeah. And that's part of what we have to do. We use propane to heat our greenhouses.


MOCK: And that's the propane heaters right now.

AUBREY: It's very humid and bright in here. Rows upon rows of tomato vines stand about eight feet tall. And it smells kind of like a cross between an indoor swimming pool and a garden.

What catches my eye in here are the brilliant colors of the tomatoes. They range from bright golds to deep purple, and Paul shows me some that are ready for harvest.

So, what are you plucking from the vine there?

MOCK: OK, that's a pink Brandywine.

AUBREY: Ah. And...


AUBREY: I see why it's called pink Brandywine. It is almost, like, a pink hue.

MOCK: Right.

AUBREY: As he bends down to snag it from the vine, he points out what really makes this operation very different. These plants are not growing in soil. There's no hint of Earth in here at all. Instead, what I see are narrow irrigation tubes threaded through each pot.

MOCK: And this black line, that's the irrigation line, like your garden hose, and the plants are getting nutrients through the water.

AUBREY: Mock explains this is what's known as hydroponics. Everything that a tomato normally gets the soil - including fertilizer and nutrients like calcium and iron - are instead being fed to these tomato plants directly through the hose.

MOCK: It's almost like you're getting an IV at the hospital. You're getting that right, directly in your vein so it's almost instantaneous.

AUBREY: And Mock says the advantage is that it gives him faster and better control over how his tomato plants grow. If there's, say, a calcium deficiency, he can correct it much more quickly than if it were soil.

Now, he knows that in the past, attempts at hydroponic tomatoes didn't always turn out so well. They can be as bland as any winter tomato. But he says there are big differences between those tomatoes and the ones he's producing. For starters, it's the seeds he's using. They're are all organic - mostly Cherry and Heirloom varieties - and they each produce distinct flavors.

MOCK: Pink Heirloom tomatoes, they're a little milder. Red is going to be your good, tangy, acidic taste. And then the purples and the black Heirlooms, they're a little sweeter.

AUBREY: And Mock says the way he maximizes these flavors is by allowing each tomato in his greenhouse to ripen on the vine.

MOCK: If we were to pick a tomato green and allow it to ripen, it would taste no better than a shipped tomato.

AUBREY: What's typical of tomatoes that are shipped long, long distances is that they're harvested while they're still green. They ripen en route and the flavor never fully develops. So the big advantage Mock has is that his customers are all nearby.

MOCK: We are harvesting today so what gets harvested today will get sent to either stores or distributors tomorrow.

AUBREY: And could be on the shelves at markets, such as Wegmens or Whole Foods, by lunchtime. They cost about $5 a pound or more, but Paul Mock says given the demand he's seen, lots of people seem willing to splurge.

MOCK: Right now, I don't have enough product for Martins or Safeway and - or Harris Teeter.

AUBREY: He's actually having to turn customers away, which must say something about the taste of his tomatoes. Back at the kitchen of Firefly restaurant in D.C., chef Todd Wiss has been waiting to sink his teeth into one and the moment has come.

WISS: Wow. Amazing.

AUBREY: If we close our eyes, could you actually be convinced that maybe it's July and this is an heirloom tomato right from your grandparents' garden?

WISS: Without a doubt. Without a doubt.

AUBREY: Really?

WISS: Absolutely. I mean, it's got the flavor, the smell, the texture, sweetness.

AUBREY: And Wiss says, he truly is surprised. Now, greenhouses like the one in West Virginia are starting to pop up on the outskirts of urban areas all over the country. So when you get that hankering for a taste of the summer, say maybe in mid-January, a good tomato might be closer than you thought. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.