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TTU News

thumb MaryRollerIn a 6,000 square-foot greenhouse at Tennessee Tech University’s Oakley farm, Michael Best and Mary Roller have been growing 24 varieties of tomato since March.             

The tomatoes are ripening quickly and some of them will be appearing in middle Tennessee farmers markets in upcoming weeks.

“These are the best tomatoes I’ve seen in 40 years of growing them,” said Best, TTU professor of agricultural economics.

Most of the tomatoes are heirloom varieties – plants that have been grown for generations without being modified to make them more resistant to disease. Heirloom tomatoes are increasingly popular, but also more fragile and difficult to grow than supermarket varieties.

Best and his students have spent the last few years experimenting with ways to grow tomatoes.

“I picked so many varieties to see how they handle the greenhouse environment. How they grow, how they taste, how they sell,” Best said. “If you do it one variety at a time, it will take you 10 years to see what works best.”

The varieties include: super sauce, one of which is supposed to make a pint of sauce; sun sugar, a type of sweet, orange cherry tomato; French Flamme; tough boys; Vinson Watts; black prince and Carolina gold, to name a few.

In the past, Best and his students have grown the plants under a high tunnel, which is sheltered from rain but not climate controlled like a greenhouse. Last year, they grew the plants in a greenhouse but the enclosed environment prevented pollination, which makes the flowers yield fruit. This year, he and Roller, a junior agribusiness major, bought boxes of bees and put them in the greenhouse for pollination.

“They’re regular old bumblebees so they don't bother us. They just pollinate all the plants,” said Roller, whose summer work is funded by the AmeriCorps program. “I came up and picked once last year but the plants taste better this year because of the bees.”

It is still relatively rare for farmers to grow tomatoes in greenhouses because of the pollination issues, building and heating expenses associated with the building, and ease with which disease can spread among the tightly packed plants.

thumb MikeBestHowever, greenhouse tomatoes come in earlier and attract higher prices because less of the fruit is available. Grown in a controlled environment, they also have longer shelf lives.

Best and Roller have already gone to Chattanooga and say they hope to distribute to Nashville restaurants as well. Roller, who grew up on a beef farm in Rock Island, says that growing the tomatoes helps her to talk to customers and being at the markets teaches her about merchandising.

“I can say I’m a student at the farm and this is my effort,” she said. “It also helps to work the markets because you see how people pick produce and how you have to display things.”

Eventually, Best says he aims for TTU’s agriculture program to be able to grow tomatoes and other produce like lettuce, basil and peppers year-round to help supply the university’s dining halls and sell to other customers. The money from the tomatoes goes back to the farm.

“We’ve got to have something to generate enough money to operate,” Best said. “It’s an experience for our students to grow and they’ll be selling these as their own tomatoes so there’s the customer service aspect as well as the agricultural production.”