Tomatoes are a summer staple. Many of us give our green thumbs a workout by growing different varieties of tomatoes in the backyard. Some are more successful than others. But even the best gardeners likely need to supplement their crop with a trip to the grocery store.
Bushel Boy Farms, headquartered in Owatonna, Minnesota, prides themselves on growing some of the best tomatoes you’ve ever tasted, produced year-round indoors at their greenhouses. Hand-picked at the peak of their flavor and freshness, they aim to elevate the lowly fruit to a premium product. You can find Bushel Boy tomatoes in grocery stores throughout Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas and Wisconsin. Owatonna’s 32-acre campus is their older and larger facility with a secondary 16-acre location in Mason City, IA.
“You can be anywhere in that five state area and be purchasing locally grown tomatoes that were fully ripened on the vine because they didn’t have to ship 2000 miles,” says Chuck Tryon, President of Bushel Boy.
Connect Business Magazine recently sat down with Chuck and chatted about Bushel Boy’s unassuming agricultural niche and what the future looks like for the company.
If you’ve been through Owatonna, you might be wondering why you haven’t seen a massive expanse of vines dotted with red gems. A field of tomatoes would almost certainly be a landmark visible from the road. These tomatoes, however, are grown hydroponically in massive greenhouses with some of the most interesting agricultural technology around.
“We are officially hydroponic. We are growing [our tomatoes] in a growing medium of primarily ground up coconut shells,” noted Chuck.
Coconuts are naturally organic and an incredibly versatile fruit (not a nut!). The pulverized coconut shell is wrapped into blocks where the starters — crops in their earliest stages of growth — are planted, all the nutrients they need are then sent through the hydroponic system before they’re then trained to grow cables that support the vines and ultimately, tomatoes.
Greenhouse growing is nothing new, it dates back hundreds of years to England and the Netherlands. Still to this day, the Dutch seem to have mastered the greenhouse and are the world’s leading experts in greenhouse growing systems. Throughout 33 years of operation, Bushel Boy has drawn inspiration from the practice’s founding countries.
“Most of the technology, most of the expertise still to this day comes from the Netherlands. The Dutch are good at taking advantage of not having a lot of land space.” This technology includes Bushel Boy’s systems as well, “We try to get to the Netherlands once a year just to see what’s happening in the industry, see what some of the other greenhouses there are doing,” Chuck explains.
A peek inside the greenhouse will give you a glimpse at what could be the future of agriculture: automatic roof panels that open and close to get the perfect temperature, RFID tracking systems for employees, their tasks, and how much they harvest, closed-loop irrigation systems with advanced UV filtering, and more interesting tech that feels more at home in Silicon Valley than in a tomato greenhouse in Southern Minnesota.
“The automated panels on the ceiling are crucial for regulating the greenhouse temperature and stabilizing the growing environment. And in the wintertime, we use artificial lighting,” Chuck points out, well aware of the state climate.
Greenhouse growing, evident by the name, employs many green alternatives as well. Chuck dives into this further, “In Mason City, Iowa, our primary source of water is everything that we capture from the roof. We have a water capture system…and that’s enough [for an average year] held in a retention pond.”
While water, light, and air are the primary growing elements needed, there’s one more we often overlook: bugs. “We use beneficial insects for our integrated pest management. That’s our primary way of controlling pests,” notes Chuck. The greenhouse cultures parasitic wasps that prey on the whiteflies, one of the most detrimental critters to tomatoes.
And insects aren’t just for controlling pests. Tomatoes, like most crops, need to pollinate and there’s one insect that buzzes past the rest: the humble bumble bee.
“So those, those are the hives,” Chuck mentioned pointing to a small, white box sitting underneath the forest of tomato vines. “They arrive, by our friendly UPS driver that brings them in. They’ll be out during the day and they’ll return to their hive at night,” he explains.
“Save the bees!” has been a rallying cry of many over the last few years highlighting their critical nature in pollinating the crops. At Bushel Boy, the bees are another employee, just as important as the workers who harvest the crops.
Looking to the Future
Though their systems are advanced, there are still several areas of opportunity for the business.
“We have the capability of transitioning to organic if we saw an opportunity to do that, we have many practices that would make that a relatively easy transition,” says Chuck as he reflects on the state of organic farming.
While the bees are working hard, so are the people. What they share is that often they both come from thousands of miles away. “We supplement our labor force with a group of H-2A workers, which is the temporary agricultural worker program through the Department of Labor,” Chuck explains.
Farmers.gov describes the program as such: “The H-2A temporary agricultural workers program – often called the H-2A visa program – helps American farmers fill employment gaps by hiring workers from other countries.”
He continues, “We’re on our second season right now of that [H-2A] model, which has given us some stability that we desperately needed. They’re coming from Guatemala primarily, well-trained, productive, good members of the community.” Of course, there are plenty of local workers as well.
“We do have a local labor force that’s in Owatonna. We’ve got a lot of long-term employees that come from as far away as Austin, Albert Lea, Waseca, and other communities.”
With nine varieties of tomatoes under their roof, Chuck knows that the market is ripe for diversification and with the infrastructure already in place, getting different crops to the grocery store can be an easy win. Of course, you can’t forget your roots.
“Tomatoes are our bread and butter, the cornerstone of the business. Four years ago, all we did was tomatoes. And for the most part, just one or two varieties. So we first started with “let’s do more types of tomatoes.” We went from the regular size tomatoes that you’d use on a sandwich and then started adding more of the smaller snacking tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, then started adding different colors of those,” says Chuck as he explains the slow and steady innovation at Bushel Boy.
With the building optimized for growing vine crops, that’s the natural next step for Bushel Boy. They also dipped into the strawberry market about three years ago, but it’s still a fraction of their business compared to the mighty tomato.
As Chuck describes, “We’re doing long English cucumbers, mini cucumbers, which are about six inches, and then baby cucumbers, those are much more of a kid cucumber, snacking lunchbox type. Then we’re about a month away from testing mini sweet peppers.”
All of this coming from what looks to be an unassuming warehouse structure just outside Owatonna.
Agriculture is a paradox: It’s been fundamentally the same for thousands of years and yet it radically changes frequently. Chuck won’t say that greenhouse agriculture is the future, but he will gladly tell you it’s “a future.” For now, however, Bushel Boy, the Owatonna and Mason City communities, and the workers therein will focus on growing the best possible tomatoes for their fellow Midwesterners.
The next time you see a Bushel Boy logo in your cart, remember, a tomato isn’t always just a tomato. Bushel Boy’s tomatoes are the product of advanced Dutch engineering, American business acumen, and Central American skill. It brings your favorite summer fruit into a whole new light.
215 NW 32nd Ave
Owatonna, MN 55060
Phone: (507) 451-5692