Winter tomatoes that taste good
These tomatoes don’t care if it’s cold
Archived article from Oct 27, 2000
By Michele Hujber
Landfills and red, juicy, delicious tomatoes make strange bedfellows, but a research project at the Burlington County Resource Recovery Complex has shown that mounds of garbage can be tapped to profitably produce year-round greenhouse tomatoes.
The tomatoes are being grown in a state-of-the-art greenhouse that is operated by the New Jersey EcoComplex. The one-acre site is powered by methane gas produced by the adjacent Burlington County resource recovery site.
New Jersey–grown greenhouse tomatoes, unlike winter tomatoes grown in Florida or California, do not have to be bred and grown to hold up during shipping. Instead, Harry Janes, the director of the New Jersey EcoComplex, has developed a growing system that produces good-tasting tomatoes year-round. “The taste is very close to matching the tomatoes sold at New Jersey farm stands during the summer,” says Janes.
With the help of some new technologies developed at the greenhouse, the tomatoes not only taste good, but also outstrip conventionally grown tomatoes in yield levels. “The plants in the Burlington greenhouse are producing about 100 pounds of tomatoes in a 4.2-by-16.5-foot area every 10 weeks,” says David Specca, supervisor of the greenhouse. “This is about five times more than farmers can grow in the field.”
The research and demonstration project at the greenhouse includes the study of the single-truss tomato production system, which features transportable benches, ebb and flood irrigation, and high-density supplemental lighting. The environment is ideally maintained for tomato production by a floor heating system, an overhead hot- water pipe heating system, thermal screens, ventilation fans coupled with screened air inlets, a carbon dioxide injection system, an irrigation system and a high-pressure fog evaporative cooling system for summer operation, all maintained and controlled through a computer.
The demonstration project has closely mimicked the challenges that producers will face and includes a detailed analysis of costs and revenues. “This is one step that research at the university can’t usually take,” says Janes. “That is, we test ideas on a small scale, but it is difficult to extrapolate profit and loss to a commercial scale. This facility allows us to take that final step and provide the grower with all the information needed to make informed decisions.”
Researchers at Rutgers have been working for about 15 years on the development of a production system that would allow growers to address some of the main problems with the systems they are currently using. One challenge has been consistent yield, which would allow easier marketing. “Up until now, the availability of product went up and down. A lot of places don’t want to see you if you can’t provide regular deliveries of high-quality product,” Janes notes. “This year our production will be pretty stable.” RLB Foods in North Jersey, a food distribution group, has been marketing the tomatoes.
Another challenge facing growers is labor management. The greenhouse incorporates movable benches, which bring plants to the workers rather than workers moving around to get to the plants. “When you’re in a greenhouse as large as this, workers are planting and harvesting at the same time, there are benches moving in and out, and there are deliveries of supplies coming into the facility,” Janes says. “With this many people in the greenhouse, things have to be organized so people aren’t just getting in each other’s way.”
The final element is to provide low-cost, supplemental light to the greenhouse. “We need to add supplemental light, because we’re operating in October through June, when the days are shorter. But the supplemental lighting is extremely costly.” Janes hopes to solve this problem by using methane gas from the landfill to generate electricity through micro-turbines at a cost of about three cents a kilowatt hour.
“With this last problem solved, the entire system will be ready to be adopted by growers. I don’t think there’s any-place else in the world that’s equipped to deliver such a complete technology package to food producers,” Janes maintains. “We’ll have a good picture of what the economics of the system will be.”