The Air is Lush at Canopy Gardens

On the most dismal of days, the air is lush at Canopy Gardens.

The hydroponic greenhouse, operated by Pam and Pete Augustyn east of Antigo off Orchard Road, is preparing its first harvest of the year, bringing home-grown tomatoes to a public weary of the tasteless fruits imported from the south.

“We have to close down the greenhouse every year and  clean everything to get ready for the  new crop,” Pam said. “Then it takes about 100 days from seed to producing tomatoes.”

Canopy Gardens is entering its third decade, started by the Augustyns with 2,784 plants in four hydroponic greenhouse bays in 1995. Since then, it has expanded to 11 bays and 7,686 plants plus an assortment of peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, and herbs.

“At the time we started, no one had tomatoes until they were ripe in the garden,” Pete said. “There were no spring tomatoes unless they were brought up from Florida or California and they weren’t very good.”

The Augustyns were raising and home-schooling their seven children and were looking for a business venture that could involve all members of the family.

The opportunity came when they went on a 4-H field trip to the first hydroponic operation in the area, operated by Dave Pade and known as Grandpa’s Garden.

“As soon as Pete saw those greenhouses, the wheels started turning,” Pam said “Our family already loved tomatoes and we were growing tomatoes in our garden so it was a natural fit.”

Hydroponic tomatoes are grown in a non-soil material that can support their roots and hold the nutrients. Canopy Gardens uses perlite, which is made from volcanic rock. Growing tomatoes hydroponically allows the producer to raise them in a controlled environment with less chance of disease, faster growth, and greater fruit yield.

The results? Fresh tomatoes at even the most dire times of the year.

The Augustyns have weathered the ups and downs common in any business. After they started, a rash of hydroponic operations, especially those based in Canada,  flooded the market and depressed prices.

“There were some really rough years for a while,” Pete said.

Their solution was to add more bays and plants and stress quality and customer service above all else.

“We’ve just kind of kept plugging along,” Pam said, and they remained in business while other hydroponic operations fell by the wayside.

More challenges remain. Those children who helped in the greenhouse and at the market stands have all grown, with children of their own. The Augustyns have brought in laborers, but it remains a 24-7 operation for them.

Today, Canopy Gardens tomatoes are available in all the local grocery stores plus outlets in Wausau and Merrill. The Augustyns also travel south to the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, which is billed as the largest producer-only farm market in the nation. That allows people from outside the area to enjoy the fresh taste of a just-picked tomato at a time of year when only the garden chives are ready for the harvest.

As the Augustyns open the 2015 harvest, they said the plants are strong and the harvest should be bountiful.

“We just picked the first 20 boxes,” Pete said. “Everything is looking good.”

That picking will continue without a break until December, with many traditional gardeners relying on the Augustyns’ harvest to supplement their own tomatoes, especially in a sketchy year.

“We raise beefsteaks and clusters, primarily F-1 hybrids and some heirlooms,” Pam said. “And they are all indeterminate plants so they’ll just keep growing taller.”

And producing that bright burst of sunshine, so wonderful on a dreary day.

Pete and Pam Augustyn in one of the Canopy Gardens greenhouse bays, with the tomato plants reaching toward the rafters.

Pete and Pam Augustyn in one of the Canopy Gardens greenhouse bays, with the tomato plants reaching toward the rafters.

Source:  Antigo Daily Journal