By Amanda Brodhagen
When Stuart Horst, owner of Elmira’s Own Ltd., tomatoes located five minutes outside of Elmira, Ontario opened the door to his greenhouse, it smelled like a fresh garden in the summertime where tomatoes were growing on vines strung up from floor-to-ceiling, but don’t be fooled, there was still snow on the ground outside and no signs of spring.
“Our goal is to bring a tomato to the market that has been vine ripened,” he says.
Stuart and his family grow three different varieties, their flagship product – the Red Grape tomato (that accounts for about 60 per cent of production), the popular Beefsteak tomato, and Cherry Vine tomato. A new variety, Gourmet Blend, was launched last year.
The most common question that he gets asked by his consumers is why his tomatoes taste so good. Horst says that answer is simple: tomatoes are picked ripe off the vine so that they reach their full potential – both flavourful and healthy.
Elmira’s Own prides itself on growing tasty, vine-ripened tomatoes all year round for retailers, restaurants and surrounding area supermarkets, including Martin’s Family Fruit Farm, Stemmler’s Meats and Cheese, Little Green Grocery of Stratford, Cowan’s Community Fresh in Listowel, Vincenzo’s, select Sobeys stores in the region and Fiesta Farms in Toronto.
But it wasn’t always a greenhouse operation.
Elmira’s Own was once a dairy farm that transitioned into beef. Heifers were raised until 2003 when bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, hit the beef cattle industry. Like many beef farmers, Stuart remembers losing a lot of money. “It was tough times,” he said. The borders were closed to Canadian beef and the prices at the time meant that farmers were selling their cattle for next to nothing.
The Horst family had to find something else to survive financially.
Horst says that while he grew up in livestock farming, he wanted to do something different. “So we decided to try our hand at market gardening,” he said.
After watching his wife, Esther, work in the garden, the inspiration for the family to build a low-tech greenhouse to grow tomatoes was born. From there it has evolved to what it is today – a growing, innovative, high-tech, family-run greenhouse operation.
The art of growing tomatoes“The tomatoe vines grow a foot a week,” he said.
The greenhouses are high-tech with features that try to mimic the natural environment. For example, rooftop curtains open to allow for more sunlight to come in, which, as Horst explains, accounts for about a 30 per cent savings on heating costs. That is an important consideration, especially when input costs are already high for greenhouse growers.
Other common features of modern greenhouses that the Horst family have adopted include a closed loop system to manage water.
“We aim to grow a product that is very natural,” says Horst. This includes everything from trying not to use pesticides, to looking at ways to reduce the amount of salt that is needed to grow the tomatoes. In fact, Horst has a few on-farm trials looking at managing salt use with different products. Horst and his staff monitor the salt levels daily.
One of Horst’s other focuses right now is on root health. “That is where the focus is right now on field crops and I believe that the same applies to what I am doing here in the greenhouse,” he says. Right now, he is growing the plants in coconut coir, which is the husk of the coconut plant.
He has placed bee boxes throughout the greenhouse to allow the bumblebees to pollinate the tomato crop. A new crop was put in on January 27 and the bees were at work helping to pollinate that crop.
Another key advancement was investing in an LED-lighting system featuring a special “light recipe” red/blue spectrum to create optimal growing conditions. Prior to the LED-lighting installation, the Horst family had to rely only on natural light for production.
The additional lighting has allowed them to get premium pricing for their tomato crop over the winter months.
Workers were busy picking the crop the day I visited. It’s a task that is done every other day.
The family also has a small packing area, where more family members and staff were packaging grape tomatoes to be shipped to neighbouring stores.
Local retailers lined up to pick up their orders of tomatoes including Martin’s Family Fruit Farm and Laurie Neubrand that operates Neubrand Country Produce. Both have been buying tomatoes from the Horst family since they started operation almost a dozen years ago.
Horst says that he can’t keep up with the demand for his tomatoes, and takes great pride when people tell him that his tomatoes are the “best” that they have ever eaten. ◊