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The art of the tomato

Growing tomatoes is more than gardening or farming. It’s an art and a science with a bit of psychology mixed in.

That’s the description shared by Dr. Casey Barickman at the 2022 Missouri Tomato School last May in Lee’s Summit. The associate research professor at Mississippi State University’s North Mississippi Research and Extension Center was one of two keynote speakers at the two-day educational conference and farm tour.

“The tomato must be beautiful for the buyer to understand that it is going to be a good-tasting fruit,” Barickman said. “Tomatoes are expensive to produce, and there are a number of labor inputs. There is so much time put into planning, planting, staking, pruning, watering and harvesting with this summer fruit. However, they’re always a consumer favorite when it comes to farmer’s markets and the grocery store.”

The Tomato School was sponsored by the Webb City Farmers Market, Universi­ty of Missouri Extension and Lincoln University Cooperative Extension and under­written by specialty crops grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. This was the fifth year for the event, which brings together experts in the field to teach commercial growers and hobbyists how to better grow Missouri’s top-selling specialty crop.

“Tomatoes are in the top three horticulture crops grown in Missouri,” Barickman said. “The other two are potatoes and melons.”

The first day of the Tomato School included presentations from seven experts on a variety of topics such as tomato nutrient management; best practices for harvest and postharvest storage; disease management; hydroponic cultivation; beneficial insects versus pests; growing tomatoes in high tunnels and greenhouses; using essential oils to control pests; and comparing yields of grafted and non-grafted tomatoes.

The other keynote speaker was Dr. Rick Snyder, who recently retired from Mississippi State University after serving 33 years as Extension/Research Professor at the Truck Crops Experiment Station in Crystal Springs, Miss. He has been a speaker at all five Missouri Toma­to Schools, sharing his knowledge of commercial production of greenhouse, high-tunnel and field tomatoes.

“Your method of growing tomatoes should be based on your whole farm en­terprise,” he said. “Figure out what fits into your farm and your market.”

According to Snyder, greenhouse toma­toes are higher quality and can produce a higher volume because of the controlled environment.

“A greenhouse allows you to modify the environment, such as temperature, insects, diseases, weeds, air quality and water,” he said. “Temperature is most important. Greenhouses also allow production when it would be impossible or very difficult. You have the opportunity to grow and har­vest tomatoes basically year-round.”

However, Snyder added, growing tomatoes in greenhouses incurs the most cost of the three methods, considering the larger capital investment for the structure and additional expenses for heating fuel. The upside is the opportunity to capture extra value.

“Greenhouse tomatoes that are locally grown and vine ripened have a very good selling point,” he said. “You can pick them when they are red or light red and at a uniform size and shape. They make a nice presentation in the box when you bring them to the grocery store or farmer’s market. They also have a very good flavor because they’re deli­ciously ripe.”

Field-grown tomatoes have the lowest input investments, Snyder continued, if the “grower has plenty of fertile land and a reasonably long growing season.”

“With field tomatoes, profits can be the highest, yet the season is shorter,” he said. “High tunnel growth can extend the tomato growing season. You can start your harvest earlier in the spring and continue into the fall when the field tomatoes are perishing due to frost.”

When determining which system is right for your farm, Snyder said it might just be a combination. “Look at the entire enterprise and make smart decisions about which system or combination of systems will maximize your profits and your markets,” he said.

TOMATO TOUR

For the second day of Missouri Tomato School, the “students” visited Redfearn Farm, a diverse vegetable farm in Independence, Mo. Owner Dave Redfearn shared his experience with growing a variety of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, including grafted types, in high tunnels, greenhouses and fields.

The Redfearn family has been naturally growing produce since 2009 with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that serves Overland Park, Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Inde­pendence with weekly boxes of organic vegetables.

“We utilize year-round production strategies to provide our community fresh, locally grown produce, even during our cold Missouri winter,” Redfearn explained to the attentive group.

It’s all-hands-on-deck at Redfearn Farm. Dave, his wife, Sheri, and their five children all pitch in to grow healthy food and nurture the soil. Redfearn said building organic matter in the soil they use to grow their tomatoes and vegetables is a key to their success.

“Feeding the soil is our core business,” he said. “It may look like dirt to you, but the soil is a vast ecosystem of living organ­isms and minerals, iron oxides, unicellular bacteria, actinomycete filaments, flagellated protozoans, ciliated protozoans, amoebae, mycorrhizal fungi, nematodes, root hairs, earthworms, elongate springtails and mites. These combine to make nutrients available to our plants.”

Tomato School attendees toured the greenhouses with neat rows of healthy plants that were carefully clipped to twine and wire supports. With the knowl­edge gained in the classroom the day before, growers were able to ask Redfearn questions about the differ­ent growing methods.

In the high tunnels, Redfearn grows tomatoes and a variety of lettuces, kale, chard and other greens.

“We typically plant indeterminate cherry tomatoes in the high tunnels so we have fruit throughout the year,” he explained. “We have tested many different tomato varieties. For our beefsteak tomatoes, we plant determinates because they just taste better. I’m not going to grow something that looks great but is tasteless.”

Primo Red tomatoes are planted outdoors in the field. This tomato is a determinate hybrid that grows on a compact, open plant and provides the farm with uniformly sized tomatoes that make for an easy har­vest. Redfearn also uses cover crops in these fields.

“We plant buckwheat, winter rye and field peas to add organic matter and fix nitrogen into the soil,” he said. “The thick, organic straw mulches we apply for water conservation and weed control also break down to feed the soil micro-organisms. Crop rotations, including deep-rooted crops, help bring up key min­erals locked deep within the Missouri subsoil.”

Soil and how to treat the land were big topics of the farm tour. Redfearn said that he “limits tillage and compaction of our planting beds to improve soil structure. That gives soil microbes, fungi and earth­worms the ability to thrive.”

TOMATO TIPS

Throughout the two-day school, present­ers offered their expertise and answered questions from the growers. Here are some of the most interesting and useful takeaways for both commercial producers and home gardeners:

  • Temperatures below 50 degrees and over 90 degrees impair tomato growth. The best temperature range is 64 to 85 de­grees.
  • There are 8,000 varieties of tomatoes, according to Snyder. There is no perfect variety. Whatever you plant, choose one that yields well, produces tomatoes with a uniform size, has excellent disease resistance and is free of physiological disor­ders. The variety is dependent on your market and location, growing season and method.
  • Before planting, test your soil or growing medium. Knowing your soil nutrient levels can help ensure you start tomatoes off on the right foot, Barickman said.
  • Don’t crowd plants. Each plant needs 5 square feet. Over­crowding encourages disease and pests, plus limits the quantity and quality of the fruit.
  • Most producers plant indeterminate tomatoes because they continue to bloom and bear fruit all season. Many flavorful determinate tomatoes bear all their fruit within a few weeks and wither away.
  • Commercial growers harvest tomatoes when they are green and then apply ethylene gas to trigger the ripening process. Most direct-to-consumer producers harvest at the breaker stage, or when the pink color first becomes noticeable. These tomatoes are physiologically mature and will develop their tomato-red color naturally.
  • Water during the day, not in the evening, to allow time for the roots’ absorption. When water is introduced and sits on the fruit or leaves, pathogens start to be active. Water is an excellent medium for taking a little bit of contamination and spreading it harvest-wide.
  • Harvest tomatoes as often as they are ready. This is a great way to encourage more flower and fruit formation.

The 2023 Tomato School will be held in person and virtually on May 16 with farm visits around the state on May 17 and 18. Visit online at bit.ly/2023TomatoSchool and provide your email to be notified when registration is open.

Visit webbcityfarmersmarket.com/training.html and redfearnfarm.com for more information on the 2022 event.

 

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