Walter Ross - Farmhouse Tomatoes, Florida:

"US: "Forget production figures, flavour first!"

In the competitive world of commercially grown vegetable production, it’s unusual to find a grower solely focused on creating the best flavour in their crop, without them being preoccupied with increasing production year on year.

But flavour is exactly what motivates Walter Ross, owner of Farmhouse Tomatoes, Inc, based in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Boasting Heirloom varieties of tomatoes that date back to the 1850s, Farmhouse run three greenhouses containing 40,000 plants and covering 160,000 square foot; and at present they have no plans for expansion because, says Walter, “we’re focused on flavour and quality. That’s what we’re branded for, for superior flavour.”

All their seed and rootstock is propagated and then grafted – to create a stronger plant - by a Canadian firm, before being transported back to Florida where they’re grown in Bato Buckets in Perlite.

In previous years, they combined it with Coco Peat but “this can get a little muddy,” he says, and “Perlite’s always been very consistent and I’ve never had any trouble with contamination.”

The greenhouses are polycarbonate with shade cloths and reflectors inside and out, and use an evaporative cooling system to combat the outside heat.

Their growing season runs from November 1 and finishes at the end of June the following year, because summer temperatures makes it very difficult to grow all year round in Florida.

“It’s because the night time temperatures range in the 80s [in the summer] with 100% humidity, so evaporative cooling is not going to work no matter what you do.”

“The plants will go vegetative as they’re just trying to recover from all the heat so it’s not so much the daytime temperatures as it is the evenings. But that coincides with having to turn the greenhouse around anyway,” he says.

However, with the rest of North America suffering from what is being called the ‘polar vortex’, it has brought cooler temperatures to the South, and, says Walter, “The first time we’ve really had to use heating this season was last Tuesday night. Some years I’ve had to use heat in November.”

But that doesn’t automatically mean higher energy costs he says, because during milder years when the price of propane has been higher, it’s a ‘trade-off’. “You get a milder winter and less light, but in exchange for that you’re spending less on propane,” he says.

“Sometimes I wish we had a freeze down here because it would knock down the insects!”

Farmhouse Tomatoes currently supply premium quality grocery stores like Whole Foods, Fresh Market, as well as food service distribution companies and fine dining establishments throughout the Eastern US.

“When you start dealing with retail it’s still a price point,” he goes on. “There’s a lot of competition coming out of Mexico and California this time of year. And that comes back to me turning the greenhouse around in the summer time when everyone’s growing them in their back yards.”

For more information:
Farmhouse Tomatoes
Walter Ross (LinkedIn)
Palm Beach County Florida

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