When Are We Getting Tomatoes?

Message from Garden of Eve Farmers on August, 1, 2011.

The slow struggle towards tomato season starts in the greenhouse in March after making selections from seed catalogs and looking for qualities such earliness, color, taste and disease control and yield. Selections are made and the first seed is planted. A lot of heat is needed to get the seed started at a time of year when nighttime temperatures can drop in the teens.   We try to conserve energy by using heat mats that don’t heat the air but just the tray of soil on top of it, that contains the seed and is set at 80 degrees to simulate a warm june day.  After the seeds germinate it will be 4-6 weeks until they are ready to set out in the field which is mid to late May, and still risky due to heavy winds and possible cool wet weather.  

Preparing the soil for where the 10,000 tomato seedlings are planted begins in August of the previous year.  Vetch is a legume that we plant with rye or triticale (a type of wheat) to pull nitrogen from the air into the soil. Legume cover crops reduce our need for fertilizer that is often shipped in from long distances.  These crops grow until the ground freezes and then go dormant and start growing again when the soil thaws.  We then apply 15,000 pounds of compost to the acre  in the spring,  apply lime or gypsum (natural crushed rock)  for calcium and for PH adjustment (to make the soil less acidic) so that our plants will grow strong! 

Tillage is needed to kill off the rye and vetch before they grow 6 feet tall. This is done right when the vetch flowers but  before seed is produced, the time when vetch puts maximum nitrogen into the soil.  Chopping and disking vetch with the tractor is a lot of work and can only be done when soil conditions are soft, drained and workable (i.e. it can’t be done when it’s constantly raining, like this spring). We first disc the cover crop to kill it off,  then plow the soil deep with a conservation plow called a chisel plow and then go over it with a implement called a spader that loosens  the soil.  We then  wait two weeks for the organic matter to break down and then use the spader one more time before planting.

If lucky the tomato seedlings are not leggy and are of high quality and the weather is perfect for setting the plants out.  When the plants are set drip irrigation tape is placed for watering and the plants need to be cultivated, monitored for disease and weeded weekly.   If this sounds like a lot of work to you, just wait. We are just beginning.  The plants need to be staked to keep them from laying on the ground making weeding and picking impossible and disease more likely since plants can’t dry off.   Staking means driving a wooden stake every four feet deep enough in the soil so the plants can be supported.  We drive 3000 stakes 6 feet tall to support the tomatoes.   Then plants need to be tied up by weaving twine from side to side.  Three to four lines are needed we use over 20 miles of twine.  Mulch also needs to be applied if it is straw bales  need to be broken and spread under and between the row. 

Plants are scouted as often as possible to catch any disease that could spread and wipe out the crop.  The biggest threat is late blight and it can wipe out a tomato or potato field in a week or two if weather conditions are favorable and the spore can travel hundreds of miles with a passing storm front.  It has already claimed conventional potato fields in our area which had to be destroyed.   There are strong chemical fungicides that work but must be applied after every rain episode.  

We can’t use those on our organic farm.  We can use elemental copper which can prevent the fungus from colonizing the plant if caught early but is not completely effective.  Conventional sprays can’t even completely protect a crop as we learned by stories in our community.   So you can imagine the stress we feel in waiting for the first tomato of the season.  Now when you ask, “when are we getting tomatoes?” you know what flashes through our mind, as we weigh what to say…