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Eurofresh provides protected environment for tomatoes

A walk through the Eurofresh tomato plant in Snowflake is like a visit to the set of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Instead of the usual home garden tomato vine that stands about two to three feet high with branches spreading out, the vines in the Eurofresh greenhouses soar high above ground.

The vines themselves, which grow to about 50 feet, are woven back and forth reaching a height of about 18 feet, tied up with string. As high as that is, there is another three meters (nearly 10 feet) of a buffer zone between the tomatoes and the roof. Visitors to the greenhouse are required to wear white lab coats so they won't leave any unwanted material on the vines if they should happen to brush against them.

"In our Snowflake operation, each plant produces 40 to 50 pounds per plant," said David Leitch, general manager of Eurofresh's packing operation. "We produce about 150 million tomatoes here. "At this farm, we only grow utility tomatoes which are of uniform size. We have 40 to 50 contracted customers that we supply year-round."
Clusters of tomatoes in varying stages of ripeness range along the last 18 feet of vine that goes straight toward the ceiling.

As the tomatoes ripen, the leaves around them are cut and finally the clusters themselves are cut off and that now empty portion of the vine is bent to allow the next cluster to come closer to the floor. The top end of the plant continues to grow and blossom until it reaches about 50 feet in length.

"Because we supply produce 12 months of the year, we try to stagger the growth so we are never out of production," Leitch said. "We also stagger our cleanouts. Our production planning consists of an ideal scenario, but depending on our sales, we can adjust the plan."

Root stock is planted in rock wool, which is similar to insulation material, and the variety of tomato desired is grafted to it. Leitch said they use plants from a propagator in British Columbia for the grafting. They come to the Snowflake farm three inches tall and put into a nursery to weather.

Once they are put into place in the greenhouse, they are able to control 100 percent of the nutrient the plants receive. Each vine will spend 10 to 12 months in the ground. "Our plants haven't been genetically modified," Leitch said. "Changes are made by selective breeding over a number of years. The tomato vines grow 12 to 14 inches a week. "Workers take out the suckers so there is only one stem going up. The plants require continual management. In single tomatoes, the tomatoes can have different grades but when they are attached they have to be even sized."

The leaves and suckers, which would turn into branches, are clipped near the bottom where the tomatoes are ripening because growers want that area of the plant to be light and airy. One reason is so the conditions won't be conducive to fungus. Water carries nutrients to the plant with about 30 to 40 percent of the water running off into holding tanks, Leitch said.

This water is sterilized and the nutrients put back in. It's then sent back into the drip irrigation system. Leitch said the water in that system tests as safe as that in the municipal water system. Pest control is done by natural means, mainly by using insects that are predators for insects which attack the plants and "keep the bad bugs at bay."

Bumble bees are also occupants of the greenhouses. They are necessary for pollination and do a better job of that than honeybees do because pollination is their only job, he said. This species of bee also doesn't communicate so if one gets out of the greenhouse, it can't return and tell the other bees where a more attractive pollen source, such as apple blossoms, is located. The bees aren't native to Arizona but have adapted well to life in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes continue to ripen as long as they are on the vine which is why the Eurofresh tomatoes are picked in clusters. The redder tomatoes will be shipped to the Phoenix area. Greener tomatoes are shipped to Pennsylvania. All work with the tomatoes is done by hand from grafting the tomato plants to harvesting and packaging. The time between harvesting and shipping is less than 24 hours.

"The plants see the tomatoes as seed transportation," Leitch said. "The more attractive the tomato, the more animals (in nature) will want to eat them. The fruit has a high concentration of sugar so they will want to come back. "Our tomatoes are closest to what you would grow at home. That's why they taste so good."

Leitch said he would like to see a food classification between organic and field produce, pointing out that organic produce is no safer than field produce except for the fact pesticides aren't used on it. "The definition of organic is that it has to be grown in compost or soil," he said. "We feed our plants with nutrients in a refined manner. We don't use pesticides. "Organic is kind of a misnomer. Our biggest problem is that people don't know what we offer in our tomato production."

Leitch offers a quick tip for consumers if their tomatoes are too green. Just place them in a paper bag with a banana for one day. Eurofresh Farms was first established in Pennsylvania in 1990 by Johan van den Berg and Wil van Heyningen, third generation Dutch greenhouse farmers. Looking for another location, they moved their operation to Willcox in 1992.

"The main facility was chosen with the assistance of Merle Jenson at the University of Arizona who ran a hydroponics program in Tucson," Leitch said. "He was an expert at the time and they asked him about a location. He told them Willcox. It was at 4,600 feet above sea level and had all the benefit of the light and the hard frost which kills off all the pests. That's important because we're a pesticide-free program. The other important factor is the quality and quantity of water. If it never rained in Willcox for 400 years, we would still have enough water. Snowflake also has a good water supply from the Coconino aquifer."

Another reason for choosing Willcox was the fact the area had a good agricultural workforce although finding workers has become more challenging in the past few years, he said. The Snowflake plant's work force includes inmates from the state prison near St. Johns. Eurofresh expanded to Snowflake in 2002. The facility is located in the Snowflake Industrial Park off Snowflake Boulevard West.

"A facility was already here and we wanted to keep our operations in Arizona," Leitch said. "European technology and Arizona sunshine make beautiful tomatoes. "Originally there were 20 acres under glass, but we've added another 24 acres. There were challenges initially because we didn't have the heating capacity."

The greenhouses are divided into four "farms," two 10-acre farms in the original 20 acres and two 12-acre farms in the newer portion. Having the four plots gives Eurofresh a lot of flexibility in their production," Leitch said. The greenhouses in Snowflake are higher than those in Willcox because Willcox's facility has a heating system and Snowflake's doesn't. Instead, the Snowflake plant has a buffer from the top of the plant to the roof of about 10 feet.

The Willcox farm produces a variety of tomatoes, including beefsteak, roma campari and grape tomatoes as well as European cucumbers. The Snowflake farm only produces utility tomatoes. Eurofresh has enough land on their property to build another 48- to 50-acre greenhouse but that won't be built until the Southern Solution for flood control in that area is built.

Source: wmicentral.com

Publication date: 7/14/2008


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