Some midwinter day when you're in the grocery store, pick up a few boxes of cherry tomatoes and read the labels to see where they were grown. Most come from Mexico. That makes sense: warm climate, long hours of sunlight. Others are from Canada, grown in greenhouses. The strange thing is that both boxes are about the same price. How can a Canadian grower who must pay for heat compete with the Mexican grower who gets all his therms for free? In the summer of 2011, I set out to find the answer at Pyramid Farms in Leamington, Ontario, where owner Dean Tiessen has thirty-seven acres of vegetables under glass roofs. As soon as I pull into the farm's office, having driven about an hour southeast from Detroit, Dean bounds out to greet me. He is a fit and handsome man in his mid-forties with a straight-up shock of dark hair.
If anyone has farming in his blood, Dean does. His forebears were Dutch Mennonite farmers invited by Catherine the Great in the 1760s to settle and modernize farming in southern Ukraine. There they stayed, farming lucratively generation after generation, until the communist revolution in 1917. Dispossessed by collectivization, his grandparents fled to Canada and settled in Leamington, where, on one and a half acres, they grew seedless cucumbers and tomatoes in greenhouses. The farm passed to Dean's father in the 1950s, and about ten years ago Dean, his brother, and two cousins took over. They transformed a small operation that sold into the local market into a business that supports three families, employs more than a hundred people, and sells across North America. Pyramid Farms now competes in a highly price-sensitive, global market.
So how does a Canadian succeed? Dean slides open a greenhouse door to show me. Forget tomato bushes. I am looking into an eight-foot- tall solid wall of tomato vines that extends the sixty-foot length of the greenhouse. It is densely hung with tomatoes, the largest, reddest ones toward the bottom, little green ones at the top. I peer through the wall, and see another one just a few feet behind this one. Dean tells me there are about a hundred tomato wallshe calls them rows, but that doesn't do justice to their bulkin each greenhouse.
This is tomato growing at its most intensive and efficient. We look at the base of one wall. Forget soil. Two tomato vines, thick as ropes, emerge every foot or so from a foam block set in a narrow trough in the concrete floor. A black umbilical cord of water and nutrients runs into each block. Far above, a horizontal wire runs the length of the green- house just below the ridgeline. Spools of string hang down from the wire every few feet. Each vine is assigned its own string and has been trained to grow up along it. Every two weeks, the spools move farther along the horizontal wire and unwind about two feet of string. Every week, a worker on a lift twirls a newly grown length of vine up the bare string toward the overhead wire. The tip of each vine grows farther and farther from its base. Eventually the tips will be sixty feet from their roots. The lengthening of the strings effectively lowers the older portions of the vines, so that great ropes of parallel, leafy, tomato-filled vines slope very gradually from floor to ceiling.
At the top of the vines, new leaves and a cluster of little yellow flowers emerge. I run my eyes down a vine and count eight clusters of tomatoes. The tomatoes in the topmost cluster are small and green, and each successively lower group is in a greater state of ripeness. By the time the tomatoes are perfectly ripe and bulging, they're about knee height. The low drone I hear in the greenhouse comes from air circulation fans, but it could be the thrum of tomatoes growing at full throttle. Every leaf in here is green and healthy; every fruit is blemish-free.
Dean tells me he can now grow as many pounds of tomatoes in one acre indoors as his Mexican counterparts can grow outdoors in forty-seven. In the last ten years, he has tripled production per acre, thanks to improvements in greenhouse technology and the breeding process. He also has refined his crop selection, choosing to grow only specialty tomatoesincluding twenty-six varieties of heirloomsthat have higher profit margins. The only variable he can't improve is the Canadian climate and his concomitant need for fuel. About 40 percent of his cost of production is energy, and he feels the pain of every penny increase. More than any other worrycompetition, blight and bugs, labor costsit is the volatility of energy prices that keeps him up at night.
Excerpted from A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger. Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Kassinger. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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