OWATONNA (AP) -- If growing tomatoes for commercial distribution was as easy as a few bees, some fertilizer and several handfuls of seeds, it would not have taken more than two years for Jay Johnson and Dave Peterson to get it right.
Thirteen years later, Johnson's education continues.
Johnson, president of Bushel Boy Farms of Owatonna, and his former partner, Peterson, started raising tomatoes on their own in 1990 in a one-acre greenhouse still located on the site of the 32nd Avenue business.
As a teen-ager, Johnson worked on a farm in his hometown of Albert Lea. He graduated from Albert Lea High School and earned degrees in management and agricultural economics from then-Mankato State University.
He sold pork for seven years before deciding to become an investor in and manager of a tomato production around 1989. Peterson's brother, he said, was running a small tomato operation in Clarks Grove at the time.
For two years Johnson and Peterson watched how Peterson's brother grew beefsteak tomatoes. They then opened their own Owatonna greenhouse.
The decision to operate from Owatonna was a strategic one, Johnson said. "We knew Minneapolis-St. Paul was going to be the market (for our product). Being located south of the metro area meant they would be able to grow their tomatoes with a little more winter sun while being close enough to do direct-store delivery when the tomatoes were ripe and red.
Plus, after investigating gas and electric rates in the area, Johnson said he and Peterson determined Owatonna Public Utilities was the best choice for their use.
As for the early days of what was then called Vine Ripe, Johnson said, "It was very, very difficult in the beginning. ... We couldn't get the yields and you have to get very high yields to afford the capital costs (associated with) growing tomatoes indoors."
Despite the difficulties, Vine Ripe had few competitors in the early days and the quality of the product they were producing was "really high, really premium," Johnson said. "We had very few pounds to sell but the price per pound was enough to pay the bills, and we were barely doing that."
At the time Vine Ripe had five employees, not including Johnson and Steve Amundson. "I did do a lot of packing and so did Steve," Johnson said.
Amundson, a former commercial hog farmer from Blooming Prairie, had come on board as head grower and second employee after Johnson and Peterson started the business. Amundson has been with Bushel Boy Farms ever since.
Peterson was a financial partner, but never an employee of the business.
"Two days a week I would deliver and three days a week both Steve and I would pick. Whatever it took," Johnson said.
One day in 1992 someone Amundson knew on the East Coast told him a Dutch tomato-growing consultant might be able to help Vine Ripe improve its yields. "(Greenhouse farming) is a huge industry in Holland," Johnson said. "It's like corn or soybeans here."
"Holland is the greenhouse capital of the world," he said.
Servaas Kamerling traveled from New York City to Owatonna every two weeks for four or five years to help the Bushel Boy operation. Though he is semiretired now and lives in Florida, Johnson said Kamerling still visits Bushel Boy Farms four or five times a year.
A second consultant from Holland now visits every three weeks, Johnson said.
"(Kamerling) told us we needed to go with him to Holland to see how to (run a greenhouse) operation," Johnson said. So he and Peterson went on a weeklong trip.
Greenhouses, with tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and flowers growing inside, dotted the landscape. "We saw amazing stuff," Johnson said. "It would be like comparing planting corn with a horse to seeing a four-wheel drive, 24-row corn planter."
With the consultation of Kamerling and the switch to the Dutch system and equipment, Johnson and Amundson were able to see a difference in yields almost right away.
In the first two years the plants yielded approximately 250,000 pounds per year, Johnson said. The knowledge transferred from Holland gained them a 50 percent increase in yield.
From Kamerling the two men learned about temperature, water, plant spacing, and pruning, and how the right balance of these elements leads to much better yields.
These same elements are visible on a walk through the facility. Bees, purchased from a Dutch company in Michigan, are shipped to Bushel Boy to pollinate the tomato plants. As a side note Johnson said they pollinated plants by hand with what looked like a "jumbo-size electric toothbrush" in the early days of the operation.
Computers regulate the mixture of fertilizer mixed onsite with water from an 80,000 gallon underground tank.
Since the 180,000-plus plants in the greenhouse give off oxygen, carbon dioxide must be pumped in to feed them so they will continue to produce.
The change of seasons means an "energy curtain" over the greenhouse ceiling and artificial illumination below it are necessary to bring precise amounts of light, or energy, to each plant.
Large boilers keep the temperature throughout the greenhouses balmy, and generators keep the boilers, computers, energy curtain and pumps going in case of electrical emergency.
Ninety-five percent of the insects at Bushel Boy are curbed with biological control. In other words, new insects are brought in to counteract any destructive insects that appear in the greenhouse.
Johnson said employees are able to set the parameters for all these elements. An alarm system alerts them at home if something goes wrong overnight.
Johnson said the newer greenhouses produce 20 to 30 percent more yield than the original greenhouses Johnson used when he started the business.
In 1996 Johnson and Peterson needed a name with which to market their products. Johnson said they discovered "vine ripe" was a term used to sell many varieties of tomatoes to the stores Vine Ripe intended to market their tomatoes to.
They decided the new name should be inclusive, so it could be used for any future products the company might raise, including cucumbers, bell peppers, lettuce and herbs.
After several options were reviewed, they settled on Bushel Boy.
Also in 1996, Johnson and Peterson decided they needed more room for their growing business, so they purchased an additional 40 acres of land on which to build. Bushel Boy has added space nearly every two years since then, and now boasts 13.5 acres of greenhouses. In addition, in 2002 a new office and packing area were added.
In 1999 Marco de Bruin, a native of Holland, joined the company as the general manager. He has a four-year degree in indoor vegetable crop growing from Holland, Johnson said.
Four years ago Peterson sold his interest in the company to Johnson. During the past year de Bruin bought part interest and is now a partner.
Currently Johnson said he deals with "the stores, delivery and the financial issues," and de Bruin and Amundson manage the growing and production side. Terri Sittig has served as the business' office manager for more than 10 years.
Bushel Boy Farms produces approximately 50 percent beefsteak tomatoes and 50 percent vine-on tomatoes. They are currently testing grape tomatoes grown in 3/4 acre of greenhouse.
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