In the Red: Tomatoes Remain Focus For Canopy Gardens Hydroponic Produce Growers

Sure, there have been some anxious years for the owners of Canopy Gardens, but for the Langlade County family business, being in the red just means walking into the greenhouse. There, from March to mid-November, about 9,000 tomato plants paint the space in brilliant colors.

Canopy Gardens sells cucumbers, peppers and a variety of greens at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison but has focused its efforts over the past 23 growing seasons on tomatoes for wholesale markets in north-central Wisconsin.

“We were looking for a family business to teach the kids how to work,” said Pete Augustyn, who started Canopy Gardens on the outskirts of Antigo, with his wife, Pam.

They erected a four-bay hydroponic greenhouse in 1995, and with the help of their seven children started selling a year later. They eventually bought facilities from neighbors who were going out of business and now have 11 bays.

In 1999, they added a wood-fired boiler to heat the facilities from locally sourced chips.

“If we weren’t burning sawdust or chips for fuel, we would have been all done 15 years ago,” Augustyn said.

As tomato prices started to drop and fuel prices rocketed up, he said it was persistence and a serendipitous visit from a Farm Credit Services representative that kept them in business.

“We had to see a dollar a pound — maybe even more now — to break even. When Canadians are sending their tomatoes in and selling them for 63 cents a pound at the stores, that’s where the problem was,” Augustyn said. “We refinanced, and then the market started getting better.”

Hydroponic growing is a dirtless system where plants take root in Perlite — fine volcanic rock — and are nourished with fertilized water.

“The plants get exactly what nutrients we want them to get,” said the Augustyns’ daughter Lindy Price. “We have our fertilizer tailored to what a tomato wants.”

Price grew up with the greenhouse and is the only one of the Augustyn children to return to the business. As her parents did, Price said Canopy Gardens is a way to have a job where her children can be with her. She and her husband, Cory, formed a partnership with parents Pete and Pam in January, but it almost didn’t happen.

“In fact, we were trying to sell it the past five years,” Pete said. “We had a potential buyer, and at the last minute (Lindy and Cory) said, ‘We’d like to try that.’ ”

One of the reasons Canopy Gardens is successful is that growing tomatoes in a protected greenhouse gives them as much as nine months of sales.

But a long season makes for a long year of work.

Seeds are ordered in November and planted in December. Within about a month, seedlings are transplanted, two to a pot, into the greenhouse and fed a liquid diet. The tomatoes and cucumbers are indeterminate varieties that produce harvestable fruit beginning in late March and continue vining and producing fruit until they are pulled up in about mid-November.

“We’ll usually start tearing out plants right after Thanksgiving, and we’ll take about two weeks to clean everything out, sanitize and rebuild the buckets with new Perlite. And then we get a little break,” Price said. “Last year, our last delivery was one of the first weeks in December.”

She said the plants wouldn’t keep growing well without added lighting, and pest problems start to show up late in the season.

“We pride ourselves on no herbicides or pesticides,” Price said. “We need those months in the winter when we clean out and sanitize in here so we’re not carrying over diseases to next year.”

During the growing season, the family and seven part-time employees prune excess foliage, support the long vines with strings and clips, and harvest tomatoes twice a week.

“We like to pick them as ripe as possible but still give the stores that time to have them on their shelf,” Price said. “We’re picking and we’re shipping the next day. We want it to be fresh. We don’t want it sitting in here for a week before we send it out.”

She said, depending on the sunshine, they might be picking cucumbers every day.

In the sorting room, an apple sorter has been repurposed to weigh the big beefsteak tomatoes into 15-pound cases. Canopy Gardens also sells on-the-vine tomatoes and basil wholesale. They will ship five to seven pallets of tomatoes a week to grocery stores as far north as Minocqua and Eagle River and south to Stevens Point.

The farm market side of the business includes green peppers and cherry and grape tomatoes. Augustyn said the smaller tomatoes don’t produce as well and are more labor intensive, so the business puts most of its limited growing space into the beefsteaks.

He said some of the stores the family sells to want to promote the local aspect of their produce. Others just want good tomatoes.

“We really don’t have any (competition),” he said. “Canadian tomatoes don’t affect us, but if the stores have a chance to choose — sometimes they don’t have the choice — they will always pick us. Even though we’re more money, there’s no loss. If one of our tomatoes goes bad, we’ll fix it and give them a new case, or whatever.”

Tomatoes coming from much farther away have to be picked almost dead green to be ripe by the time they hit the store shelves, Augustyn said.

“If you pick them too green, you lose the flavor. If you pick them too red, you lose your shelf life,” he said.

The family has weathered challenges in the past, but Augustyn said there are always more. For instance, the outdoor gardening season puts a dent in sales.

“If I had lights for growing I would not be growing during the garden season,” he said. “And then when the garden season is over, I’d start picking again. But, you can’t have ripe tomatoes throughout the winter without lights.”

When asked what he sees for the future of Canopy Gardens, Augustyn’s response was immediate.

“I don’t want to get bigger,” he said. “This is enough.”

He paused and looked at his daughter and son-in-law and added, “Unless they want to.”

Source: The Country Today