The battles surrounding water continue to be waged all around the farm of Wade Smith in Lucas County, just off the shores of Lake Erie. But while the water quality issues of Ohio do hit close to home for Smith, it is a much more distant water battle that is driving many of the business decisions at his Whitehouse Specialty Crops hydroponic greenhouse.
“California is out of water and is sucking their aquifers dry. It is imperative that the United States makes drastic decisions on food production. California will no longer be able to provide the food that it is currently supplying to this country,” he said. “That is what continues to drive me. We need more food production here in Ohio and we need to do it responsibly and efficiently.”
With this challenge in mind, Smith decided upon a new career path a few years ago that builds upon his unique set of prior life experiences.
“I grew up about three miles down the road from here. We farmed 270 acres and my dad had a full time off-farm job. We started growing tomatoes in the 80s — about 4,000 field plants. That was my summer vacation. After seven years the market went south. Dad got out of it and he did cash grain,” Smith said. “I went to college at Bowling Green State University and then worked for Owens Illinois — a glass manufacturer in Toledo. I like machines and I never found myself leaving the plant, but then my father got sick and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I decided to leave the plant and go to grad school to be more local and got a master’s in industrial technology. I learned more manufacturing principles and I worked for a community developer to maintain ponds, roads and bridges.”
Smith enjoyed the challenges of his work, but the real estate market in the area collapsed in 2008.
“My dad had passed in 2006 and I was the fortunate recipient of three acres of daylilies. By 2008, I had already joined Maumee Valley Growers Association that is geared towards the bedding plant industry and greenhouse growers. After he passed, I got into the commercial wholesale perennial business,” Smith said. “I got to go to Belgium and see the greenhouse industry over there. It was a life changing experience for me. I saw a combination of everything I truly enjoyed doing in life — big automated greenhouses with advanced technologies growing food.”
With new inspiration, he returned home four years ago and started growing two commercial tomato varieties in a 1,200-foot hydroponic greenhouse in an expensive experiment with a very steep learning curve.
“I taught myself how to grow hydroponic tomatoes. Growing things indoors is dramatically different than outdoor production. It is a microclimate. It crammed a lot of information in a very short time for me. The learning curve is still huge,” Smith said. “Maintaining a plant over 52 weeks in a greenhouse is very different than growing a crop in the field for a summer. I had to learn about all of the pathogens and how to control them. It is a fairly new science in the United States. It is more based on preventative maintenance rather than response. You have to have the discipline to maintain a true Integrated Pest Management system. If you are not prepared properly, problems can explode on you.”
Much of the research he relied upon for learning was based in Europe.
“The quality of the products has driven this in Europe. They look at things from a more biological based mindset. You have to understand the biology of the plant and understand what the plant needs and when it needs it to be successful with hydroponic production,” Smith said. “The Dutch invented the greenhouse in the late 1400s and they have really worked to increase amount of food production. It is just a big manufacturing system for a tomato.”
Smith focused almost entirely on tomatoes to become an expert in producing those. Then he almost immediately started to figure out how to justify the expense of building a larger greenhouse.
“Over two and a half years I learned about pest control and control of the fungal pathogens and the nutrients, but the small greenhouse did not allow for the proper climate for consistent production. I learned how to grow tomatoes but it wasn’t profitable because it was too small,” Smith said. “We donated that greenhouse to an inner city project in the fall of 2013 and the next week we started building the current greenhouse that is 4,000 square feet and much taller than the old one. I started production by February of 2014. Then the learning curve changed because we were able to do it for more of the year. We have never found ourselves outside of the learning curve with this.”
Now Smith is growing five varieties of tomatoes, mostly indeterminate varieties that continue to produce over an extended period of time, which allows them to produce more yield per square foot.
“We can get from 4,000 square feet what they can get from an acre in the field. We have a target of 50 pounds per plant over 45 weeks — I shoot for one pound per plant per week,” he said. “The goal for us is to start in the late summer or fall, run through the winter and get out of the market in summer and let the field guys into the market, which allows time to clean out the greenhouse and bake it at 140 or 150 degrees for a week, sterilize everything and get a good wash on the inside. If you can start with a sterile environment it is easier to keep it that way.”
The plants have to be carefully managed to keep them productive for so long. As the vines produce tomatoes, they are raised and clipped so they keep growing longer. The spent vine is coiled up like a garden hose at the base of the plant with the newest tomato blooms near the tied up end of the plant.
“The nutrient needs change through the life of the plant and with the amount of light they have. The nitrogen needs go way down in winter. There were only two days of useable light in December last year so we had to change things,” he said. “When you get heavy fruit sets, the potassium needs go way up to a 2:1 ratio with nitrogen. We use several different sources of N. We now have one year of information to make nutrient recipes for the future.
“We also use nutrients to keep fine line between vegetative and reproductive part of the plant. We always want to trick the plant into thinking it is the end of the season — late August or September — all year round. This winter it was impossible. It was like March every day. We have to look at the plant and understand the subtle signs the plant is telling you and adjust things as needed. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the most important nutrients but we also work with around eight or 10 different micronutrients to tweak the formula.”
Moving forward, Smith is considering technology to automate this process that he currently does manually.
“There are systems available currently that look at weather, the plants, the fruit, moisture content in the bags, and nutrient makeup of the solutions that are running and then make the right mix accordingly,” he said. “We want to get more like the Europeans. Right now we are mixing up batches of nutrient every three or four days to keep plants going. The nutrients go into the water system that runs into bags of sterilized sphagnum peat moss medium and the spent water runs out of bags of and into the ground. We are going to switch to a recirculating system.”
Nutrient management also has a significant impact on tomato quality.
“We try to run on little to no nitrogen and only give them what they need to produce sweeter fruit. We grow based on quality and the customers are looking for that. We pick the varieties that have flavor and they are more difficult to grow. It creates challenges for us, which is one potential advantage for the grafting more flavorful varieties on more resistant rootstock,” Smith said. “The customers don’t know the varieties but they know they like our tomatoes based on the size, flavor and color. Flavor is a product of the sugar content. We have tricks that we can do to the plant that we can transfer the sugar.”
Customers are also looking for pesticide free products that are locally grown. In terms of pest management, Smith relies on natural control methods.
“We have bees in the greenhouse for pollination and we use all biologic pests that we bring in and hatch. One, for example, is Encarsia formosa for controlling white flies. We use several different types during different times of year,” he said. “The beneficials are lazy and as long as they have a food source they don’t go anywhere, but if they eat everything they die. If the predators get behind you can have a pest explosion. You have to have a living population of the bad ones to keep the good ones alive and you have to learn that balance. We did this winter. We were out here with a vacuum sucking up white flies in February. We thought we may lose every plant but we saved them.
“We fight botrytis (gray mold) and powdery mildew continually. We spray a mineral oil, bacteria and biological fungicide as needed to control those problems.”
Selling the flavorful, locally grown, pesticide free tomatoes have never been a problem.
“We have not had any trouble selling as many as I can grow. Jim Sautter, who owns the Sautter’s local grocery stores, started selling our tomatoes and they are still the main market for us,” he said. “We also sell to an organic Mexican restaurant in Toledo. With our system we can grow tomatoes specifically for what the customer needs.”
The tomatoes are all hand harvested based on production and orders.
“We pick tomatoes and hold them for a day to get the heat out of them. We require our order to be placed two days before. We pick them in the morning, let them sit in the box for a day and get them on the shelf,” he said. “When we say fresh we mean it. We have it on the shelf 48 hours from the vine.”
Smith is typically on his own with the harvest and delivery of the tomatoes, though his wife and a local student help some.
“I am mostly a one man show,” he said.
Smith is already looking at his next expansion, even as he works to break even in his first year of production in his current capital-intensive system.
“The next greenhouse will be glass — 1% more light means 1% more production,” he said. “We will also have to install a wash plant and step up biosecurity within three years to comply with food safety regulations. The biggest challenge is finding the economic justification for our expansion. The capital required is a big challenge. And I am always out here tweaking something to get better. This is not something you can just walk away from.”