By Andrew Campbell
Whether it’s ketchup, pasta sauce, salsa or the base of a good pizza – tomatoes are an enormous part of our cuisine here in Canada. And like so many other foods, good flavour starts on the farm. In the deep south of Ontario, tomatoes have been a part of the farm landscape for decades with big name processors working with farm families like Dave’s to bring high quality products to Canadian consumers. Growing a tomato for a paste or sauce is actually very different than growing a whole tomato you buy in the store. In fact, the tomato itself is different, because of that process. That’s why this tour is so fascinating as you get to see what those differences are and get a better idea of just where your ketchup started from.
Thanks for having us, Dave. How long have you been a tomato farmer?
My grandfather immigrated to this country in the 1920s and saved until he bought his first farm in 1949. He grew tomatoes for a little company called Heinz starting in 1950. We grew tomatoes for 64 years for the Heinz company until they closed after their 2013 season.
Wow, that is a long time. Did things work out? Are you still growing tomatoes?
We’re still growing tomatoes. In 2014, we were not able to secure a contract, but in 2015 we grew for a small processor, Thomas Canning. And now we’re growing for Highbury Canco, which is the company that was formed and bought the assets from the Heinz company.
That’s great. What types of things are your tomatoes used for? Because these are not the tomatoes that I get for my bacon and tomato sandwich!
No, those tomatoes for your sandwich come from our greenhouses. The tomatoes that we grow in the field are destined usually for one of three end uses. Either paste, whole peeled in a can or for tomato juice. The tomatoes in this field are going to Highbury Canco, and they’ll be used for tomato juice and paste.
The paste is then used to make products like ketchup (under the French’s brand), salsa and pasta sauce.
Amazing. So, it’s harvest day here. How are these tomatoes different from the ones grown in greenhouses for the fresh market?
They’re bred to withstand the rigors of a mechanical harvest. So until 1988, we grew somewhat larger tomatoes that were hand harvested, but these are harvested by machine. If you take one of the red ripe tomatoes and cut it, you’ll see how thick the cell walls are. They’re able to tolerate going through a machine without bruising, which saves time and labour.
Plus, most of these tomatoes are processed in less than 24 hours to maximize freshness. Any of the tomatoes you see harvested today will be in a can, a bottle, a storage tank or a box well before the sun comes up tomorrow!
Taste-wise, do these tomatoes taste like the tomatoes I buy at the grocery store?
They taste like a regular tomato. They aren’t specifically bred for flavour but obviously you want great taste. But they’re bred for other things that are important for our customers such as viscosity or thickness.
You think of your ketchup. You don’t want it running all over your hamburger. You want it plopping on there and staying. So these tomatoes are bred to make a thick sauce. Many of these tomatoes will actually redden from the inside out and you’ll actually find better color when you cut it open.
You can see that thick wall, as you were saying that the skin is so much thicker. I ate one before we did this interview and the outside cell wall is much chewier.
It is September and you’re harvesting. A lot of work went into getting the tomatoes to this point. What else does it take to get these red ripe tomatoes?
We usually start thinking about a tomato crop over a year in advance. As we prepare, we think about the crop we grew before. We like growing wheat ahead of a tomato crop. That gives us time after harvest to prepare the soil beds. We apply lime and other fertilizers if needed. Tomatoes are a crop that do require a lot of tender, loving care in order to have an optimum crop, both from a quality perspective and from a yield perspective so that we can make some money.
In the spring we receive our transplants. We don’t plant tomatoes from a seed. Our season in Canada is shorter than the largest growing area in the world, which is California.
So the seeds are planted into greenhouses here in mid March through mid April, and then starting in May, we’ll transplant seedlings that are five inches (15 centimetres) in height. We’ve got automatic or semiautomatic transplanters that plant two rows for each of these beds. There’s actually two rows of tomatoes in there. We will basically take care of them through cultivation. There’ll be some fertilizer that’s put down before we plant.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, this area has had some dry years. We’ve responded to that by installing an irrigation system and we’ve installed drip tape at the center of each bed down about 8 inches (20 cm) in depth. It has emitters spaced every 12 inches (30 cm) apart. The water source we have is Lake Erie, about three kilometers away. I’m also part of a water line company that delivers water to our fields. Because we pump raw water, we can irrigate directly from the system to buried irrigation lines that we have.
Now, why buried irrigation and not a water cannon that sprays water everywhere?
Water cannons are not the most efficient system. It certainly works but with our tomatoes, we’ve actually buried this tape using RTK technology, which is a GPS technology. We leave this in the ground for 10 years. Many producers also will only leave the tape on the surface and use it for one season. We did remove it about three years ago, recycled the tape, and then reinstalled it. We had a tree line that we moved and I shifted the bed slightly to become a little more efficient. You’re looking at about 1.6 kilometre rows here. We’ve broken it up into four zones. And so we irrigate this way.
That is pretty amazing. So,these vines are exactly where the last crop was two or three seasons ago?
Yes. We rotate to other crops on top of this buried irrigation system. So you do have to be careful in off years with tillage that might rip those lines up. We do a bit of tillage. We actually do primarily conservation tillage or no tillage on the off years. Obviously, with a tomato crop, it’s very intensive, so we will come out and do some light tillage to level the fields, always staying above the drip tape.
Obviously it’s taken a whole lot of babying to get it to this point. Now it’s harvest day. Can you explain how that harvester works?
The harvester works on similar principles to the grain combines used to harvest wheat, canola and other grain and oilseed crops that many people are familiar with. We’ve got rotating disks right at soil level or just slightly before the soil level and these take the entire plant into the machine. We aim for a concentrated harvest, so our concentrated maturity and our varieties are bred to maximize the number of red ripe fruit at the same time.
So, the harvested tomatoes go up and go through what we call a brush shake that gently shakes the plant. The tomatoes will fall through a widely spaced chain. The chain is still spaced tight enough to carry the empty vines out the back where they are shredded and the compost is flipped back onto the soil. The tomatoes will fall down and then be divided and come around both sides of the machine and then through some human sorting. If there are any vines or bits or stones that might come up into the machine, we’ve got people that will remove those.
Then the tomatoes go through an electronic eye mechanism that removes the majority of the green tomatoes and puts them back onto the ground. These are going for a paste end use and a little bit of immature fruit actually helps the process of making a thicker ketchup or a thicker sauce.
Then it’s on the wagons here. Then what happens?
Usually during daylight hours, we will try and transport tomatoes to Highbury Canco. They operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Together with our neighbors that are also tomato farmers, we’ve instituted a shuttling system where our employees will take the loads delivered. They’ll be graded, assessed, weighed and unloaded into the factory. This all should occur within 24 hours of being harvested.
Isn’t that amazing. I like to think that my ketchup starts out as a fresh tomato! Thanks Dave, appreciate the tour today.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer, Andrew Campbell’s full video here