Fresh produce doesn’t grow year-round in Kentucky and Tennessee. However, Brian Knott, president of Grow Farms, Louisville, Ky., is working to extend that limited season by increasing its supply of hothouse tomatoes.
“We’ve got five small family farms that grow hothouse and field tomatoes, and that works out perfectly because the hothouse production winds down at the end of June when the field tomatoes start,” Knott said.
He has seen strong demand for the early tomatoes.
“They are grown in the dirt, but being in a hothouse means the quality is excellent. It’s a really popular tomato because the flavor is unbelievable and it’s the first local tomato you can get,” Knott said.
These benefits don’t come without a price. Cost is a factor in trying to extend the season.
“It’s so costly for those guys because we had such a cold winter and they spent more on gas than they ever have in the past,” Knott said.
Still, the market for the early local tomatoes is growing.
“The hothouse market gets bigger every year. They built 10 more hothouses over the past winter and will be able to build more this year without a doubt,” he said.
He thinks the tomato offers something to the local market.
“The timing is perfect because the hothouse tomatoes come on so early. At that time of year, people are really looking for a good tasting tomato that imports just can’t match up to. They’ve had enough of imports and want something that looks good and tastes good,” Knott said.
Jonathon Mixon, farm manager for John Mixon Farms, Rutledge, Tenn., grows hothouse and field tomatoes.
“We start picking fresh tomatoes the first week of May,” he said. “That’s one way we can play with extending the season.”
In addition, moving to other, more cold-hardy crops, can help growers supply local produce longer, particularly in farmers market settings, but even that is limited.
“When you move into the off-season, you see more diversity in more cool season crops, but mostly, we start to see a lot of preserves at those locations,” Mixon said.
Other than growing tomatoes in a protected environment, Knott said there isn’t much else than can be done to extend the local season.
“In our area, the season is pretty much what it is. We just ask growers to start as soon as they can and stagger their plantings to go as late as they can,” he said.
So far, Knott doesn’t have any other items being grown in protected environments.
“Tomatoes are the only items in hothouses currently,” he said.
Knott said extending the season into later months isn’t as successful as starting it earlier.
“We’ve tried doing hothouses in the fall, but we’ve found a lot of tomatoes just won’t turn in the fall,” he said.
He blames shorter days and not enough sunshine as one reason it hasn’t been successful to extend the season past the last field harvest, but said that right now, he’s OK with the current supply situation.
“We just try to stick to what we know and expand on that with more acreage and more growers. We try not to get too crazy with new things, and just do a good job of what we think we’re already good at,” he said.