On a sunny, cold February morning in Central Alberta, many people are thinking about booking a tropical getaway. Or skipping work to watch the Olympic women’s hockey final. Or both. Phil Tiemstra and his son Levi are thinking about tomatoes.
After all, they have a tropical getaway anytime they want, in the form of a gigantic, fresh-smelling humid greenhouse sprawled out under the prairie sky. And as owners of Gull Valley Greenhouses, any time can be break time. In fact, we eventually end up taking an intermission during our interview to watch the Canadian women win in overtime. The family, including Levi’s wife Carmen and infant daughter and Phil’s son-in-law Scott huddle in the office around a computer screen. After the win, Phil bursts out into the atrium, shouting, “We’ve got another gold!”
Shortly after the break, it’s time to get back to work. As it turns out, tomatoes don’t grow themselves. The family, along with around a dozen seasonal workers, have a lot to do, starting with cleaning and scrubbing out the entire greenhouse every fall. The entire, 120,000 square foot greenhouse. Since tomato plants only last one season, they get in new plants every January. They are planted in long rows of ground-up coconut husks, meticulously labelled and fed water through a tube staked into the coconut coir.
“Healthy plants give healthy fruit,” says Phil, explaining that the coconut husks hold water well and allow for lots of oxygen, which promotes healthy plant roots. And with around 30,000 plants and 14 different cultivars, Gull Valley certainly has a lot of healthy plants. And fruit.
The next step is what Levi calls crop work. Each plant variety grows best with a certain number of tomatoes clustered together. For example, Endeavor tomatoes grow best in clusters of five. So the Gull Valley team combs through each plant, pruning the flowers that would become tomatoes. Throughout the process, beneficial bugs are used to control pests because the family believes in growing pesticide-free vegetables.
Once the tomatoes have grown and fully ripened in the natural sunshine, it’s picking time. Because the tomatoes don’t have far to travel, Levi says he keeps them on the vine as long as possible to allow the plant sugars to fully develop in the fruit for best flavour. Often tomatoes that are shipped a longer distance are picked green and turn red in transit, he informs us.
So the team gets to work removing the ripe clusters by hand and placing them gently in reusable baskets that will be delivered straight to Sunterra. This system means no cardboard boxes and no damage to the tomatoes transferring them for delivery. And with deliveries to our markets two to three times a week from mid-April to October, you can be sure Gull Valley tomatoes are fresh, ripe and ready-to-eat.
Although the tomatoes aren’t yet ripe during our visit, Scott disappears down a long row of foliage and returns shortly with a green jalapeno for me to try. He assures me that it’s not ripe enough to be hot yet, and I muster up the courage to take a bite. To my surprise, it is fantastic. I mean sweet, full of flavour, eat-a-dozen-in-one-sitting fantastic.
“We choose plants that taste good,” says Levi.