It's tomato time in Iowa

Iowa grows more than corn and soybeans, you know

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While his neighbors probably will not begin harvesting their corn for several weeks, Chris Bass has been busy picking his crop of tomatoes.

Lots of tomatoes.

“We grow tons of tomatoes — at least a couple of thousand plants,” Bass said. “Tomatoes can be a profitable crop depending on your yield.”

Bass and his wife, Brenna, own and operate Bass Farms in Mount Vernon.

On a given morning from August and into late September — as soon as the tomatoes begin to “turn” — Chris and a field worker who is paid by the hour can be found bent down, on their knees, moving along the rows of plants, picking and depositing tomatoes in a cloth bag that goes over their shoulder and across their body.

Plastic crates or boxes are used sometimes to improve efficiency. Bass also uses a pallet on a tractor to minimize the number of trips to empty the picking bags.

Tomatoes, Bass said, is important for horticulture farmers from an economic standpoint.

“It provides cash flow to vegetable farms at a time of the year when nothing else is really growing,” he said. “You might have some peppers and potatoes, but not as many vegetables are ready to sell.”

RELATED: Heinz Kraft has long history with Muscatine

The 10-year-old Bass Farms operation is active in community supported agriculture, with about 100 members or shareholders.

Through a CSA, members or shareholders make a yearly financial investment in the farm, thereby guaranteeing the farm’s costs are covered and helping the farmer manage cash flow by having income at the beginning of the growing season when expenses — seeds and labor — are highest.

“We used to have 250 CSA members. but we recently had another child,” Bass said. “We sent out a letter last year saying we were only going to take 100 members.

“I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the huge CSA. We decided to sell more wholesale.”

He added that they sell to “about seven or eight bistro-style restaurants in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area. Our customers include places like the Cedar Rapids Country Club and Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids and Northside Bistro in Iowa City.”

Tomatoes are grown in Iowa on a variety of soil types and under different production systems. The tomato is a warm-season vegetable with optimal production temperatures between 70° F and 80° F.

As with many Iowa tomato growers, Bass plants his crop in May. He does not use herbicides or pesticides, and what initially was a quarter-acre of tomatoes has grown over the decade to about three acres. He wouldn’t reveal which specific varieties he grows.

“We have very sandy soil with really good drainage and a consistency almost like powdered sugar,” Bass said. “We are able to grow 30 different kinds of vegetables.”

No surprise that while Iowa is ranked No. 1 nationally in corn production annually, the state is not a major tomato grower. California is the top tomato producer for both fresh-market and those for processing — turned into juice, sauce, paste, salsa and the like — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With the exception of Amish and Mennonite farmers, the majority of Iowa’s horticulture farmers are new to horticulture production — horticulture farming means growing fruit, vegetable and ornamental agriculture, while general ag refers to horticulture and field crops. Well over half of farmers — 59 percent, or 496 farmers — responding to the 2015 Iowa State University Extension Commercial Horticulture Food Crop Survey said they grew horticultural crops for 10 years or fewer.

The 2015 survey ranked tomatoes as the top horticulture crop in Iowa in terms of the number of farms producing — 116. The fruit was ranked second in 2000, but the number of farms producing the crop was far higher at 239.

From field to store

“Amish and the Mennonite farmers make up the bulk of the state’s tomato production,” said Joe Hannan, commercial horticulture field specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach. “I don’t know how many responded to our horticulture survey, so it’s hard to know if the figure for the total number of tomato growers is accurate.”

Amish and Mennonite farmers sell their crops at auction houses such as the Twin County Produce Auction in Kalona or the Cedar Valley Produce Auction near the northeast Iowa community of Elma.

The buyers? A majority of them at Twin County are those who sell at farmers markets or buy for restaurants and supermarkets. That includes several Iowa City Hy-Vee stores and restaurants such as the Bread Garden in Iowa City.

Customers come from up to 200 miles away to buy fresh flowers and vegetables from the Cedar Valley Produce Auction. In fact, the auction, which opened in 2003, was started by about 20 Mennonite farmers, many of whom had moved to Iowa from the eastern United States, where the produce auction model originated.

Cedar Valley Produce Auction has grown from sales of $200,000 in 2003 to $3.3 million in 2015. It is one of four horticulture auction houses operating in Iowa.

But some Iowa tomato growers sell directly to grocery stores and supermarkets. Dan Carney, produce manager at the Hy-Vee Food Store at Edgewood and Blairs Ferry roads NE, buys tomatoes from Bizek Produce and Greenhouses in Palo.

“We also get some tomatoes from growers up in Hopkinton as well as our warehouse in Charitan,” Carney said. “There’s a high demand for tomatoes grown locally.”

Sauerkraut, pickles ... and ketchup

For many years, Iowa tomato growers had a buyer for their crop in Muscatine.

Kraft Heinz’s second production facility — and the company’s first outside Pittsburgh — was constructed in Muscatine in 1893. It originally processed sauerkraut, horseradish and pickles.

The plant added ketchup and other tomato products in 1898. Muscatine was then in the heart of a tomato-growing region that included western Illinois. For many decades, the plant was taking in tons of tomatoes during the months of August and September and turning out millions of bottles of ketchup.

That changed in 1991 when Kraft Heinz switched to using tomato paste for production of ketchup and other tomato products, according to Michael Mullen, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs at Kraft Heinz.

Mullen said the Muscatine plant remains a strategic facility, producing ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauces, honey, hot sauce, cocktail sauce and sweet-and-sour sauces.

tomatoes by type

A wide variety of determinate tomatoes are grown in Iowa, including BHN 589, Celebrity, Florida 47R, Florida 91, Mountain Belle, Mountain Fresh, Mountain Spring, Nico, Polbig, Primo Red, Red Defender, Red Deuce, Solar Fire and Sun Leaper.

The determinate varieties can be grown in the field or high tunnels.

Indeterminate varieties grown in high tunnel production include Better Boy, Big Beef, Boxcar Willie, Cherokee Purple, Early Girl, Favorita, Lemon Boy, Mortgage Lifter, Red Pearl, Sun Gold, Supersweet 100 and Sweet Hearts.

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