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Dining with Dara: Locally grown tomatoes in winter

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Minnesota Bushel Boys
Bushel Boy vine-on tomatoes, like these, grown locally in Owatonna, Minn., are sold at Twin Cities grocery stories and co-ops.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

If you've been in a Minnesota grocery store during the last year you've surely noticed them: Minnesota tomatoes, being sold in months that shouldn't have Minnesota tomatoes -- months like March, April and May. Our food and dining correspondent, Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine's Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, talks ato MPR's Tom Crann about this tomato phenomenon. 

Tom Crann: First off, let's get our terminology straight. Hothouse, greenhouse -- are these words that can be used interchangeably? 

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: Yes. Hothouse, greenhouse -- what we're talking about are essentially big glass houses built over Minnesota fields.  

The biggest greenhouse operation is Bushel Boy in Owatonna, where they have glass houses over about 20 acres. But there are smaller operations, like Living Water Gardens in Wells, Minnesota, not too far from Albert Lea, and Tomato King in Albany, Minnesota, near St. Cloud.  

These various hothouse operations have very different scales. Bushel Boy employs about 80 people, including delivery drivers, growers, finance folks -- the works.  You can find Bushel Boy tomatoes in most of the metro supermarkets, Lunds and Byerly's, Kowalski's, Rainbow, Cub, and so on. 

Locally-grown winter tomatoes
Bushel Boy vine-on tomatoes, like these, grown locally in Owatonna, Minn., are sold at Twin Cities Whole Foods stores and several other groceries.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Meanwhile, little Tomato King is essentially a one-man operation -- one farmer named Jeff Skalicky who hires about a half a dozen high school kids to come in after school and work as part-time pickers, packers, and so on. Tomato King tomatoes can be found in most of the metro co-ops, and St. Cloud area farmer's markets.

Crann:  What would I see if I poked my head in one of these local tomato greenhouses? Are the plants growing in dirt? In test tubes? 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: Yes and no. Let's talk terminology.  Hydroponics is a formal term used to describe a way of growing plants so that their roots are in a water-nutrient bath, and not something else, like dirt or soil. Organics are a way of growing things that conform to certain federal regulations. I always worry that people today hear "organic" and think it means gourmet, or fabulous. 

Some of these greenhouse tomato operations are hydroponic, and some are not. For instance, Bushel Boy grows tomatoes in a sort of gravel and nutrient mixture, so they're not technically hydroponic. And none of the greenhouse operations here in Minnesota are organic in the federally certified way, but they don't use pesticides or herbicides. 

Crann: I can guess why they don't use herbicides -- weeds would be pretty easy to manage in a greenhouse. 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: Exactly. And if you think about it, what are tomatoes? They're fruit.  How do you get fruit? By pollinating flowers. In order to have tomatoes, you need pollinators.  All of the greenhouse tomato growers I've spoken with use bumblebees for the job, and therefore they can't use pesticides, which would hurt the bumblebees and end the tomato pollination.  So they use beneficial insects to go after bugs that might get in.  

I think that's one of the most important things to realize about the local tomatoes: they're essentially pesticide and herbicide free.  There was this devastating book that came out last year called "Tomatoland," by Barry Estabrook, that essentially said that eating modern tomatoes out of season is unconscionable, because the tomato workers are treated so poorly and exposed to such awful pesticide and herbicide loads. 

Crann: And besides, those Florida tomatoes don't taste very good. 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: Right. They don't taste good because they're bred for shipping. They have thick sidewalls, and turn red when they're sprayed with ethylene, a gas that triggers turning red. But it doesn't trigger tasting yummy.  

That's the major difference with this new breed of Minnesota greenhouse tomatoes. I think they taste really good. The actual tomatoes are allowed to get fully red and ripe in the greenhouses, and then they're picked and delivered the next day -- sometimes by car. The Tomato King told me he can get 50 cases of his grape tomatoes in his old Subaru, and he drives them in to the city co-ops himself. 

Crann: Couldn't I just go to my neighborhood hardware store, put a tomato seedling into my front window, and start my own tomato business? 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: Good question!  The varieties of tomato that the hothouse growers grow are special hothouse varieties that need constant attention, and grow to enormous size. A single cherry-tomato plant can reach 40 feet long, and they only do what they do in a certain temperature range. If the power goes out and it gets too hot or cold, they die. It's actually a full-time job keeping these tomato plants happy. 

Crann: I know a few gardeners who would consider that quite an enjoyable full-time job.

Moskowitz Grumdahl: It's also a growth industry. When I talked to Jay Johnson of Bushel Boy, he told me that every time gas goes up another $1 a gallon, it makes produce from Mexico and Florida that much more expensive. He guessed that in 10 years, Minnesota greenhouses will supply even more produce. In fact, anything for which a couple days' shipment makes a difference in quality, like cucumbers or fresh herbs, will eventually be grown in local greenhouses. 

Crann: So we'll be the land of 10,000 glass houses? 

Moskowitz Grumdahl: And hopefully no one will cast the first stone. Or our license plates might read: The sun never sets on the Minnesota BLT.