Farmer fills void for tomato lovers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 29, 2011

By P.L. Byrd
For the Salisbury Post
MOCKSVILLE — For non-commercial farmers, tomato season in North Carolina is certain: start seeds in March or buy plants in late April; harden off, set out, feed, water and nurture; watch for squirrel pilfering and blossom end rot; eat the first sun-kissed tomato while standing in the garden; wax poetic about mayonnaise and white bread.
Then, put by the harvest until Nature’s cycle begins again.
But some people just can’t wait that long. The Brown Family of Dew Drop Farm helps fill the cold winter months by offering a promise of summer.
Don Brown and son Donnie commercially farm part of a gently rolling 200-acre pastureland in Davie County, a family tradition with roots four generations deep.
“My grandfather raised cows here, and that’s how I started as a young boy,” Brown said when asked about his history. “Now, we grow tomatoes, but we still have a few cows. We’re also contract poultry growers for Perdue which is a seven-day-a-week job.”
Hothouse vegetable production may seem like light work compared to the hours dedicated keeping chickens and cows healthy, but think again.
“Eighty percent of my time is spent in the greenhouse, and about 20 percent of my time is spent in the chicken houses.” Don pauses. “Oh, and we grow strawberries, too.”
A Trust tomato
Hydroponic tomato seeds — Don prefers seeds from De Ruiter — are planted in June, transplanted into the hothouse in July, and harvested from October through late spring.
“We pick off the same plant all season,” Don says.
The Farmers Brown and one full-time employee grow 2,880 tomato plants, including grapes and yellows.
However, a large, red hydroponic powerhouse variety called Trust is Don’s most profitable best seller. A few seedless cucumbers and Bibb lettuces peek between the narrow tomato rows, but Don’s moneymaker is Trust.
Don is upfront about his preference for Cherokee Purple tomatoes, but says heirlooms aren’t the best choice for hydroponic growing.
“Heirlooms definitely have a better taste, but are more expensive to grow. They’re not disease-tolerant because there’s no resistance built into them, and you don’t get a big yield. We pick varieties that are dependable for shipping.”
In recent years, most hydroponic tomatoes sold in the United States were shipped from Holland. However, there’s no contest in flavor, according to Don’s palate. His hothouse tomatoes simply taste better, he says. Makes sense when you think about it. Produce that’s flown 4,200 miles from a Holland farm to a North Carolina table surely suffers from jet lag. Because they’re picked early and gassed into ripeness, Holland tomatoes are uniformly red and pretty. But, according to discriminating tomato lovers everywhere, these world travelers are tasteless orbs.
Don’s tomatoes aren’t subjected to such harsh treatment.
“We pick our tomatoes when they’re pink and allow them to ripen naturally,” he says. “And they’re sold locally through small markets and grocery stores.”
The Brain
It’s not easy producing high-maintenance hothouse tomatoes in the middle of winter, but under Don’s watchful eye and a digital machine known as “The Brain,” these vegetables receive more coddling than a newborn calf. Temperatures are maintained between 65 and 67 degrees.
“The idea is to keep the temperature even,” Don says.
A daily average of 900 gallons of water mixed with fertilizer keep the plants perfectly hydrated, which helps prevent salt buildup, a serious problem that can damage or kill a plant if not caught quickly.
“The water intake increases when the weather warms up, and decreases on humid, cool days,” Don says.
When he first started growing hydroponically in 1999, Don’s start-up cost was around $100,000. By the second year, he was in for $200,000.
“The salesmen don’t tell you that you’ll need a cooler for storage, or a truck for delivery, or additional labor. But they did offer free technical advice. I was on the phone every day asking questions.”
In the early years, heating the greenhouse with propane gas was a huge expense, but now Don primarily heats with wood which has whittled his $16,000 per year propane bill to $5,000.
No synthetic pesticides are used to grow Dew Drop Farm tomatoes. Instead, Don uses biological controls. Parasitic wasps (Encarsia Formosa) work in tandem with Botanigard, a product primarily made from a fungus found naturally in soil which attaches to white fly eggs and makes short shrift of them. Small hothouse bee hives provide necessary pollination.
One of Don’s current challenges is figuring out how to reclaim the greenhouse’s water run-off. He’s determined to recycle an average of 200 gallons daily. And make no mistake. Don will figure it out, or ask advice of someone who knows.
“I’m thinking blueberries can use that water,” Don says quietly, pondering his next crop.
The Brown family’s Dew Drop Farm Market at 302 Foster Road, Mocksville, is open Wednesday-Friday from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. For more information, call 336-492-5263, or email