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The key to this agricultural success lies in Leamington, Ont., a 22-kilometrewide stretch of land along Lake Erie, home to the largest concentration of greenhouses in North America. Situated as it is at the country’s southernmost tip, Leamington boasts mild weather and long, bright days—perfect conditions for growing a wealth of fresh produce, including tomatoes.
Henry DiCiocco ought to know: He and his family have been growing tomatoes since his parents first started their vegetable farm in the 1960s.
Like many farmers, DiCiocco’s family found Leamington’s fertile land ideal for growing cucumbers, bell peppers and, of course, tomatoes. Back then, they farmed outside in fields, with a small greenhouse for winter months. But as technology advanced and their company grew, they turned more and more to growing inside.
A key advantage of greenhouse growing is that farmers can control the climate to create perfect conditions year-round. Moving plants inside, however, also meant farmers had to take on roles reserved for nature, such as pollination.
In the field, tomato plants are pollinated by bees flying from one plant to the next. But when his family switched to greenhouses for raising tomatoes, DiCiocco had to help pollinate the thousands of plants by hand. “We had vibrating sticks, called buzzers, that we would use to touch every flower in every greenhouse every other day,” says DiCiocco. “It was a big, big job.” That job was given back to nature in the early ’90s, when bees were introduced inside the greenhouses for pollination at three farms, including DiCiocco Farms. It was a revolutionary move that has now become common practice.
“They do a perfect job,” he says. “They pollinate exactly when that flower needs to be pollinated.” DiCiocco also uses predatory bugs such as Encarsia, a type of parasitic wasp, to fight whitefly infestations that threaten his plants. “It helps us minimize the use of pesticides.”
DiCiocco relies on the sun’s light and warmth to ripen each tomato, but timing can be tricky. If you wait too long to harvest, you’ll have a shipment of tomatoes that could be overripe by the time they arrive at the market.
“You want them to be ripe off the vine to get the peak colour and flavour,” says DiCiocco. “The greener you pick them, the less flavour they have.” He looks for tomatoes that are firm with an overall bright-salmon colour. At his farms, they are hand-picked between 7 and 10 a.m., before the sun’s heat hits and they overripen. During summer days, DiCiocco’s farms harvest between 34,000 and 36,000 kilograms of beefsteak, Roma, cluster and cherry tomatoes each day. From there, the tomatoes are washed, sorted by size and delicately packed by hand before being shipped to markets across North America.
“I could harvest a tomato today and it could be in the store the next night,”
says DiCiocco. Unless you grow tomatoes yourself, you can’t get much fresher than that.