Tired with the poor quality of tomatoes they were finding at local markets in the winter, Dan Nelson and his wife, Terry, decided to take matters into their own hands. The couple now spends the winter caring for 350 tomato plants in a greenhouse at Hobbit Hill Farm in Wentworth.
“Typically everyone grows during the summer, that’s the conventional way of doing things. What farmers try to do is extend their season by using greenhouses to start plants earlier, to keep them growing a longer,” Nelson said. “The problem comes in the winter months because it is so cold and there is so little light.”
The Nelsons decided to corner the market on growing tomatos exclusively during the winter.
“It’s a hard road to go down,” Nelson noted. “There are two things that kill growing during the winter: how you economically heat a building, and how to find a light source that is also economical.” Finding a market at which to sell the tomatoes is not a problem, Nelson said. “Everyone is interested in a fresh locally grown tomato,” he said. The Nelsons spent two years plotting out their indoor, heated, LED-lit garden and have successfully been producing Trust tomatoes, a standard greenhouse plant, for the last five.
“In a hydroponic setting, you are controlling everything — when [the plants] see light, when they feel heat, when they cool down, when they’re fed,” Nelson said. “You control everything in their lives.”
To grow tomatoes using hydroponic methods and also economical practices, the Nelsons have elected to use an outdoor wood furnace to hear their 1,800-square-foot tomato-filled greenhouse. In their best year the Nelsons burned 24 cords of wood from local loggers to heat the space. The house is heated at 65 degrees at night and up to 78 during the day. The balmy weather of the current winter season has “definitely been a positive” for the farm, Nelson said.
“This winter, we’ve only gone through a third of the wood at this point as compared to other years … our heating costs are going to be down this year.”
Nelson said keeping close tabs on the plants may sound difficult but he is able to program most of the systems involved in the process to run on their own. The lights and feeders, which add nutrients to the plants, are both on timers. The plants need to be fed as the Nelsons opt to grow them in bags filled only with coconut fiber to give the roots something to bind to.
“By doing this we are being very economical in the amount of nutrients and water the plants are getting,” Nelson said. “When you feed into the ground a lot of [the nutrients] leach away and the plant can only take up so much.”
Nelson starts his seeds in July and moves them into the greenhouse at the beginning of September. The first tomatoes are ready to be picked by the end of October and the season continues through the end of May, he said. He can produce up to 350 pounds of tomatoes weekly.
In trying to increase productivity in this year’s crop, Nelson partnered with another grower to try something new. Unfortunately a “little piece of the puzzle” was left out of the new process, and as a result of high humidity in the enclosed greenhouse, many of Nelson’s tomatoes have been diseased.
“We’ll fight it. We just do what we can,” Nelson said. “Hopefully we make it through the year.”
Nelson said he envisions a growing trend in the use of hydroponics in the Granite State.
“I think in order to be able to increase productivity in a small footprint you need to be able to grow year-round … I think this is where you have to go,” he said. “I’ve talked to some farmers who have had to extend their season already.” Nelson has worked with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension to develop economical hydroponic practices and invites those interested in creating such a system to visit his farm.
Nelson said the capital needed to begin a hydroponics venture was high to “really set up a good building correctly” but after making mistakes during the early years he has been able to make it work and make it profitable.
For now most of Nelson’s tomatoes are sold only at the Tilton Winter Farmers Market.
“The market has been very, very good to me, a great success, to the point where I tend to run out,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”