Greenhouse Tomatoes Provide Fresh Start For Fruit Grower
For 37 years, folks traveling Highway 431 just north of Lafayette, Ala., could count on stopping at Slay’s Apple Farm for fresh, homegrown apples. As they rounded a curve in the road near the Chambers County community of White Plains, customers were greeted by brightly painted red barns, and inside, an honor box allowed them to select their fruit, pay and be on their way.Today, the Slays’ orchards are bare, but in the shadow of the apple barn, a modern greenhouse has emerged, heralding the beginning of a new area of horticultural production for Prather and Lillian Slay.At age 80, starting a new business would be the farthest thing from most people’s minds, but not for Mr. Slay, who serves as chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Horticulture Committee. Instead of easing into retirement, he’s revitalized his business by offering travelers a new choice in delicious, red fruit–greenhouse tomatoes.Slay became interested in greenhouse vegetables after attending a seminar at the Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference a few years ago. In March 2003, he took a three-day short course in Jackson, Miss., and in September of that year, he planted his first crop.Slay sold enough tomatoes that winter to pay for the used greenhouse he’d bought. Then, last fall, he lost his plants while trying to control an infestation of white flies. Undeterred, Slay replanted on Jan. 14, and his tomatoes already were 36 inches tall in late February–promising to yield a bountiful crop of tomatoes long before garden plants begin to bloom.”I haven’t had any trouble selling the tomatoes,” Slay said. “They sell themselves. I’ve sold most of them right here in the yard on the honor system. We sell them for $2 a pound, and have $5 containers and $10 and $20 boxes.”Slay said folks are eager to purchase the greenhouse tomatoes because they taste just as good as garden-fresh varieties–unlike the hard, pale offerings found in grocery stores during winter months.Producing greenhouse tomatoes, however, is not an easy proposition. Beginning in August, when he plants seeds in super-absorbent Oasis® cubes, Slay has to be vigilant to ensure his crop is getting the care it needs.”The seeds cost 26 to 39 cents each, and you order them by number, not by weight. So, you want to do everything you can to make sure the plants survive,” Slay said. “It’s pretty confining. You need to check on the greenhouses two or three times a day. Sometimes I spend a few minutes in here; sometimes I spend several hours.”Once the plants get about three inches tall, Slay transfers the seed cubes to 5-gallon plastic bags that hold two plants each. The bags are filled with refined pine bark, and equipped with watering spades that provide the growing tomatoes all the nutrients they need.Some might think that, as an octogenarian, Slay would utilize older technology, but Dr. Joe Kemble, vegetable specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said Slay’s greenhouse is state of the art.”These greenhouse operations tend to be very sophisticated, and Prather has one of the best systems available,” Kemble said. “His system actually waters based on sunlight.”Slay explained that a light sensor in the roof of the 30-foot by 96-foot greenhouse triggers the watering system to come on when a preset amount of sunlight has been accumulated. The watering spades draw fertilizer, calcium (to prevent blossom-end rot) and other nutrients from two 55-gallon drums. On sunny days, Slay said the plants might receive water 50 times, compared to about a dozen times on cloudy days.In addition, Slay’s greenhouse is equipped with eight thermostats that control two propane heaters (which are vented to the outside) as well as a series of fans and vents located in the ends of the greenhouse. Slay keeps all the secondary spouts (or suckers) pinched from between the main branches of the tomato plants, and he uses a vibrating wand to pollinate the small yellow blooms. “You need to pollinate when the sun is shining and the atmosphere is dry,” Slay said. “They recommend pollinating every 4-5 days, but I try to do it twice a week. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to go through the whole house.”As the tomato plants grow, Slay ties the branches to nylon twine using plastic clips. The twine hangs from a cable running the length of the greenhouse. By the end of the growing season, some of the tomato plants will be over 10 feet long, and the total weight of all 720 plants in the house will be 3-4 tons.Slay manages the weight and size of the tomatoes by thinning each cluster of pollinated blooms from about a dozen down to three. “Most of these tomatoes will weigh between 7 and 9 ounces,” he said.In a normal year, Slay picks tomatoes from mid-November until May, harvesting up to 450 pounds a week. That’s quite a change from apple farming, but according to Slay, the key to success for both crops is marketing.”I’ve always said, ‘If you don’t market what you grow, that’s where you’ll lose money.'”For Slay, that philosophy was formed when, as a child, he watched his father run a country store. After high school, Slay worked in the shipyards of California and Hawaii before returning to Alabama to farm. An unusual business opportunity led him to Mississippi for eight years, where he raised tung oil and ran a dairy before settling in Chambers County with Mrs. Lillian in 1963. They raised five kids on the apple farm until increasing pressure from deer forced them to give up apple production in 2002. This year, the Slays will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary, and in addition to raising tomatoes, they enjoy spending time with their 15 grandchildren.As an ambassador for horticulture production, Slay said he is encouraged that greenhouse tomatoes could give young farmers an opportunity to stay involved in agriculture.”When folks stopped by over the years, a lot of them said they would give anything to be able to do what I do,” Slay recalled. “But, they said they couldn’t afford to buy 300 or 400 acres. That’s the great thing about this; you don’t have to buy a lot of land. You could build three or four houses like this on one acre.”According to Kemble, a lot of people are making that discovery. Greenhouse vegetables already are a multi-million-dollar business in Mississippi, which has 15-16 acres of greenhouse tomatoes in production. In addition, Kemble said he receives at least two inquiries a week from people in Alabama who are interested in greenhouse crops.Currently, he said there are 15-20 Alabama farmers growing greenhouse vegetables. Like Slay, most raise tomatoes, but others are producing herbs, microgreens, cucumbers and lettuce.”I have a lot of people call who want to get involved in greenhouse tomato production, but many of them don’t understand the cost involved,” Kemble said. “They’ve got to do their homework and have a realistic expectation of what it will cost to set up. There’s a very high level of management associated with this, and producers need to spend time researching it before investing in a greenhouse.”Sample budgets for greenhouse vegetables are available online at http://msucares.com/crops/comhort/greenhouse.html. For more information, contact Kemble at (334) 844-3050 email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.