Tomatoes thrive near Big Piney
Big Piney – With a sloping hillside and too little land to support a cow, Stewart Doty turned to greenhouses and a high-quality tomato business to make his living in western Wyoming after he quit the oil field.
That was in 1989, when Doty had only set foot in one greenhouse in his life. Since then he says he’s learned how to grow a good tomato through mistakes and modifications. Wyomatoes began with one greenhouse level and has now grown to nine terraced levels in two greenhouses.
Throughout the hot, dry summer months Doty uses 1,500 pounds-per-square-inch (psi) misters to humidify and cool the plants, while in the winter large radiators are used to warm the houses, which utilize twin-walled ceilings for insulation. A solar sensor regulates the mister system, while the water in the radiators is heated with secondhand motor oil from the energy industry – Wyomatoes uses 500,000 gallons per year.
Large fans along the eastern wall of the greenhouses also help with summer ventilation, as do curtains that rise and fall with temperatures on the west wall. Doty says the dry climate of Wyoming has benefits for tomato production – there’s a minimal amount of bugs. “Although we do get bugs that should not be in this part of the world,” he says. “Somehow they find a way.”
The 12-foot tomato vines filling the greenhouses support seven clusters of tomatoes at a time and can reach 20 feet long by the time they’re taken out mid-winter. “If you get everything going right, there’s a constant supply of tomatoes,” says Doty of the 4,000 plants requiring daily care from five people.
Tomatoes are picked twice weekly and processed before delivery to customers. The crop takes from 50 to 60 days to mature from bloom to harvest. New plants are started Nov. 15 and on Jan. 1 they replace the old vines. Wyomatoes produces all its own plants to minimize insect introduction. This fall Doty says two-thirds will be grafted – a process common in Europe and Canada that combines a better rootstock with a better top. “A person can graft about 500 plants in a day, and the yields are a lot better,” he says.
For four winter months Wyomatoes has no tomatoes available for sale, because it takes that long to grow a tomato. “We’re always trying to figure out how to make them grow faster,” says Doty.
The greenhouses produce about 5,000 pounds of fruit per week. That supply of tomatoes heads north to restaurants in Jackson or south to grocery stores and farmers’ markets in Salt Lake City, Utah. “The restaurants are easy to sell to because all you’ve got to do is get them to try the tomatoes,” says Doty. “The chefs want them, then word gets around.”
Demand is high, he says, and Wyomatoes could sell three times what they currently produce. The recent salmonella scare didn’t frighten their customers away – on the contrary, their business picked up because the customers trust their source.
Of the cost of delivery, Doty says he raised prices 25 cents recently. “We’ve been holding prices steady, and nobody seemed to mind the 25 cents. If anything they were surprised it took us that long,” he says. He says the advantage of burning used oil throughout the winter is what keeps him in business.
Doty built three new terraces last year, and he says he’s done building for a while. “That was a big project, and took longer than I expected,” he says. Doty does all the construction on the new levels, scooping them from the gravel bed, laying rock walls and fabricating a frame from recycled steel.
Those new sections currently produce basil to market fresh at farmers’ markets. “We try to get away from mono-cropping,” says Doty, adding that carrots were the second crop last year.
Wyomatoes is in the midst of becoming certified organic. Instead of conventional fertilizer the operation now uses a calcium nitrate fertilizer composed mainly of crab. “We call it the seafood platter,” notes Doty. Every two plants are supplied with a dripper and a pop bottle leaching fertilizer into the soil.
“This fertilizer has the whole package of micronutrients and calcium and it’s not as pricey as chemical fertilizer,” he says, adding the cost is about a dollar per plant per year.
“The flavor makes these tomatoes better than others, and I don’t really know why,” says Doty, speculating that it’s because they’re grown in old-fashioned dirt. “Most operations now are hydroponic, and there are very few greenhouses left. The hydroponics don’t have the bio action of the soil, and I think that’s where our flavor comes from.”
Wyomatoes adds microbes to the irrigation water to encourage the soil to give up fertilizer and make it available to the plant. “That helps the breakdown, and we add calcide rock when we take the plants out in the winter,” says Doty.
“We couldn’t do it without the technology,” says Doty of greenhouse management. Of his plot of land, he says, “I’ve never figured out anything else to do with this hillside. Maybe you could raise goats.”
“I figure they’ll pick me up in a row someday and haul me out,” says Doty of his future plants for Wyomatoes. “I don’t know who’s going to come along next, but sometimes I wish they’d hurry up and show up.”
Wyomatoes can be contacted at 307-276-3057 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.