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Sustainable Production

 

Growing Tomatoes 101

The vast majority of Canadian processing tomato production takes place in Essex and Chatham-Kent counties and along the southern border of Lambton County in southwestern Ontario. This area has a deep tradition in tomato production stretching over the past century. This region features rich soils and a longer growing season with stable moisture patterns – all desirable traits for high value vegetable production.

So how are field processing tomatoes grown anyway? Many people grow tomatoes in their home garden and the basics behind growing processing tomatoes is not that different - although tomato production today has changed dramatically from its early origins.

Focused on Tomatoes

Mechanization and specialized varieties have combined to make tomatoes a high value crop for growers who focus in this area of vegetable production. Given the capital cost of equipment and specialization in production, tomato operations have grown in size from earlier decades when the labour intensive nature of the business meant having many growers with small acreages.

Today’s growers average more than a 100 acres in production when compared to the 10 to 20 acre operations of the 1950’s and 60’s. Also given the specialization of this crop, production of processing tomatoes is based on a contract system. Growers are contracted by companies like Thomas Canning to grow specified volumes for set prices in each season based on negotiations that take place during the winter months between the processor and the growers’ organization. Contract specification will vary by the end use of the tomatoes – whether for juice, paste, diced or whole tomatoes.

Preparation for tomato planting actually takes place months and years ahead of the actual growing season as producers plan their crop rotation well in advance of a high value crop like this one. Advanced planning allows producers to best match other crops in the rotation both before and after tomatoes to take advantage of residue cover, pest cycles and available nutrients.

Processing tomatoes are smaller and plumb shaped in size, with varieties selected based on the quality and taste of the fruit produced along with hardiness for mechanized field and processing operations.

Planting and Early Season Growth

Tomatoes are a warm season crop planted from early May to early June on lighter and well-drained sandy or sandy-loam soils. In southern Ontario, processing tomatoes are grown using transplants produced primarily in local greenhouse operations. Transplants are used to give a head start to the growing season and to ensure a uniform and healthy plant stand from the get go.

Processing tomatoes are either grown on flat ground or on raised beds that are formed before planting. Most tomatoes are planted using a twin row system – two rows planted close together with the next set of rows 60 inches apart. Mechanical cultivation occurs early in the season after planting to both maintain the shape of the beds and to remove weeds.

Irrigation

Given stable growing seasons and the heat loving nature of this crop, irrigation is seldom used in southwestern Ontario – however, several growers are equipped with irrigation systems. A few growers are now using or experimenting with drip irrigation systems. Drip irrigation is where plastic tubes or strips are placed along the tomato rows. Water is applied at the base of the plant through holes in the tubes or strips. Drip irrigation offers several benefits to tomato production including:

  • Higher yield potential
  • Opportunity to spoon feed nutrients as needed
  • More uniform, precise and efficient use of water resulting in lower water volumes needed
  • Reduced risk of foliar and fruit diseases as the plants can be kept dry
  • Reduced need for drainage

Integrated Pest Management

Tomato growers utilize integrated pest management systems through the year to manage insects, fungal and bacterial diseases and weeds. Cultural practices include crop rotation, mechanical cultivation and field sanitation. The majority of growers take advantage of monitoring systems to time insecticide and fungicide applications according to insect growth and population thresholds or the risk of disease infection. The choice of pest control product will depend on the stage of growth of the insect or disease and whether the crop is being conventionally or organically produced.

One such monitoring system is called TOMCAST. Computerized stations located across tomato growing areas use temperature, humidity and moisture conditions to determine disease severity values. Growers use the accumulated disease severity values from each day to determine the optimal timing for fungicide applications. Fungicides protect tomato plants from diseases like early blight, late blight, botrytis, septoria leaf blight and anthracnose.

Harvest

All processing tomatoes in southern Ontario are mechanically harvested. This involves a once over operation where all tomato vines and fruit are collected and conveyed into a harvester. This typically occurs when 90% of the fruit is ripe. In some cases, a fruit-ripening agent is applied several weeks before harvest to maximize the percentage of ripe fruit. In the harvester, chains separate the fruit from vines. The fruit is then sorted both electronically (using an electronic eye) and by hand with 4 to 8 people standing and sorting tomatoes on the harvester. Fruit that is not mature or is rotten for whatever reason is sorted and discarded out of the back of the machine.


The tomatoes are then hauled by truck or wagon to the processing plant. Upon entering the plant, samples are taken from all loads and graded by third party impartial graders hired by the Ontario Processing Tomato Advisory Committee. This committee is comprised of both grower and processor representatives. The tomatoes are graded for fruit color, soluble solids content and defect levels caused by insect damage, disease, green fruit, etc. From the truck or wagon, the tomatoes are then flushed by water and carried in a water flume into the plant for processing to the various end products from tomato paste and juice to whole tomatoes.