Andy Stickel stays busy on his Wood County farm harvesting tomatoes from late summer until early fall. Photo by Erin Stickel.

Tomatoes offer challenge and reward

By Matt Reese

As corn and soybean harvest efforts around Ohio are really starting to take off, the state’s tomato harvest is wrapping up. And, for Brian and Andy Stickel in Wood County, 2020 was a good tomato year.

“Tomato harvest has been underway now for several weeks and so far the crop looks pretty good. We went from one extreme to the other. It was a very wet year in Wood County last year and we did not get anything planted in 2019,” Andy said. “The 2020 spring was pretty favorable to get planted in a timely manner. We were really pretty dry all summer. We only really had significant rains in late August. Tomatoes like dry feet and that has been pretty favorable. It has kept disease pressure down so far.”

The diverse operation includes cattle, corn, non-GMO food-grade soybeans, wheat, hay, tomatoes, and cover crops. Andy and Brian are the fourth generation of their family on the farm. They farm with their parents, Dale and Mary Elyse, Andy’s wife Erin, and Brian’s fiancée Hannah Birkholz. This time of year, tomatoes are their top priority.

“Our family first got started in tomatoes in 1964 when our dad raised his first tomato crop when he was a sophomore in high school,” Brian said. “We have been with the same company since then, Hirzel Canning Co. My brother and I have taken that over from our parents.”

The process starts in mid-March with seeding tomato plants in greenhouses on the farm. The tomatoes are planted by hand over three to four days to fill a house and the plantings in different houses are staggered over the course of a couple of weeks to spread the harvest out in the fall.

“They are in the greenhouse for around 6 weeks until they are ready to be planted in the field around May 10,” Brian said. “Weather permitting we would typically like to see some of our corn and soybeans going in first before planting the tomatoes. We usually like to see the first tomatoes go in around Mother’s Day in the field. From there it is probably a week for the first greenhouse. Then we wait a week or so and start a second greenhouse and finish them off.”

The tomatoes are planted in the field with a mechanical transplanter.

“We have folks who ride that planter, planting each tomato plant by hand. We can plant 10 or 12 acres a day at about 11,000 or 12,000 plants per acre. We have to space plantings out because tomatoes are a perishable crop,” Andy said. “In the fall when we get to harvest we have enough of a spread in maturities and varieties that we can harvest over around 6 weeks, usually starting in the middle of August.”

Tomatoes can be very rewarding, but also very challenging to produce. Dry weather is preferred because water and nutrients are supplied through drip irrigation.

“When we first start with the drip irrigation, we lay the drip tape in the ground while we are sidedressing tomatoes and cultivating,” Brian said. “From there, we hook up all of our water supply lines. Throughout the year, then, we fertigate and this allows us to help mitigate stress for the plants.”

The drip tape also helps with disease pressure.

“The heavy rains we see sometimes in the summer can be detrimental to our crop and cause disease issues. We are on a pretty regimented spray schedule every 7 to 10 days, depending on weather and disease pressure, we’ll be in the field applying fungicide to alleviate any diseases,” Andy said. “The real factor for a top quality product at the end of the season stems from a stress free good all around growing season and adequate water.”

Weed control is also important.

“We cultivate once and then we do some tillage in the spring ahead of planting. We have very limited herbicides we can use,” Andy said. “We can post with metribuzin when needed once the tomatoes are transplanted to help with broadleaves. We can control grass pretty consistently as needed.”

The Stickels work closely with Hirzel Canning Co. throughout the very carefully coordinated tomato production process. The working relationship really ramps up for harvest.

Tomato harvest takes place on the farm nearly every day for around 6 weeks. Photo by Erin Stickel.

Hirzel Canning has three plants. There is one in Pemberville and we deliver most of our product there, but we can go to any plant. There are plants in Northwood and Ottawa as well,” Andy said. “The deliveries are all scheduled with a scheduler. She coordinates with the agricultural manager and they work back and forth to get scheduled based on how fast the crop is coming and the quality of the crop or what they need at the plant. Typically, we know the schedule 3 to 4 days in advance so we have time to plan and harvest in a timely manner. The loads are scheduled throughout the day at certain times so you know when you need to have your loads there and the plant can run as efficiently as possible.”

As the 2020 harvest continued into September, the Stickels were pleased with the crop.

“Tomatoes don’t like it overly hot but they can tolerate it. The warm temperatures this year helped keep diseases down. The quality has been really good so far. Some varieties had more rain early, but so far quality and color have been really good,” Andy said. “We want a nice red, high quality product and the color is coming on better as we have gotten into the mid-season variety. Yield has been good too and, with irrigation, we have been above average so far.”

Harvest is a long and busy stretch from mid-August to early October.

“You start in shorts and finish in Carharts. This year we have been picking every day of the week. If we have an early Monday load we’ll pick Sunday afternoon or evening. If you have all morning loads we pick the afternoon before. Every grower is a little different on what they need and how they handle things,” Andy said. “The harvester takes in the whole plant and the fruit are shaken off the vine. The vine is then chopped and put back on the ground while the fruit is carried around to be sorted through two color sorters to take out all the green or off-color fruit. Any diseased or defective fruit or smashed fruit is then sorted by hand by several folks at the sorting belt.

“We typically pick several loads a day consisting of about 20 tons on a trailer. Those are delivered either for processing that day or for the following day if it is an evening harvest. The Hirzel staff makes sure of the scheduling so the crop flow and quality is maintained throughout the season. That benefits the growers and them as processors so they can have the highest quality tomatoes coming in their door to maximize their productivity as well as ours. Our yield goal under drip irrigation on our heavy lakebed soils is between 35 and 40 tons per acre.”

In most years, corn and soybean harvest has to wait until the tomatoes are finished.

“We don’t harvest many of our other row crops until towards the end of tomato harvest, if at all, based on the maturities of our other crops. Rotationally, we typically follow wheat with tomatoes. There are a lot of folks that follow corn with tomatoes. It varies from farm to farm,” Andy said. “For us, the wheat stubble allows us to get ground fit in a bigger window than we have behind corn and beans. Typically our rotation is 3 to 5 years between tomatoes. It really depends on ground types, but from a disease standpoint you want several years between tomato crops. The acreage is based on the contracts you have.”

It is not easy, but tomatoes are an important component for Stickel farm profitability.

“Growing tomatoes is demanding and every year is different. This has been a good year from a moisture and disease standpoint,” Andy said. “You can get diseases in tomatoes pretty quickly with tomatoes. There are different issues that arise every year and it all has to fit together to produce a high quality product.”



Photo by Erin Stickel.

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