If you’ve had a tomato at Sunterra, you’ve probably had a Gull Valley tomato. That’s because most of the tomatoes in our markets come direct from Gull Valley Greenhouses near Blackfalds, Alberta. We’ve been working with Phil Tiemstra and his family for over five years and we just love their juicy, picked-at-the-right-time tomatoes.
It’s a windy August morning when I pull into well-manicured Gull Valley property just south of Gull Lake. Phil greets me, smiling, even though he’s been up since 4 a.m. to make an Edmonton delivery. Phil’s a humble leader, proudly rattling off stories and the home countries of the greenhouse employees and giving his son Levi credit for running the place.
“We all run it together,” Levi corrects him as we wander through acres of tomatoes in various stages of ripeness. The air is pleasantly warm and smells like perpetual spring – the earthy, aqueous, fresh aroma of new growth. It’s easy to sink into the tranquil vibe of the place.
The first rows of tomatoes we run into are yellow and orange tomatoes on the vine, meaning they are harvested and sold with the vine attached, usually in clusters of five or seven tomatoes. Mellow yellow, says Phil, referring to the notion that yellow and orange tomatoes have less acid than red tomatoes. When I ask if that’s true, all I get is “who knows?” But they do add lovely colour to a plate and so restaurants like buying them, says Phil.
Next up are Romas, traditional sauce tomatoes that are a little drier and firmer than most varieties. Instead of making sauce, Phil says he likes eating them because of their size. They’re not too big so there are no leftovers that can go to waste. And recently they’ve added San Marzano tomatoes, one step drier than Romas and a little bit longer in shape. Although not grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius like you’d find in cans of D.O.P. San Marzanos, these tomatoes have thick flesh and a sweet, balanced flavour.
All the tomatoes at Gull Valley are grown in long rows of crushed up coconut husks, which hold water well and allow for lots of oxygen to promote healthy plant roots. While we tour around, we run into employees pruning clusters and removing suckers, vine off shoots that would compete for plant nutrients if left to grow. Earlier in the day, they were hand-picking fully ripened tomatoes and putting them directly into the reusable baskets you see in our stores. The work is never ending around here, says Phil.
As we stroll up to check out the cocktail tomatoes on the vine, Phil lets me know that the first commercial tomatoes on the vine were only produced in the 1990s in Holland. You can’t grow just any type of tomato this way – the tomatoes nearest to the plant ripen first so it’s tricky to get all the tomatoes down the vine to ripen before any fall off. Phil was able to meet the pioneering producer himself on a trip to Holland this winter as part of the tomato community, an international meeting of greenhouse tomato growers hosted by Philips horticulture. The meetup included greenhouse tours, a stop at the greenhouse museum and presentations from growers including Phil himself.
He chuckles as he remembers one young man from Taiwan asking for a photo with Phil after seeing him on YouTube: he’s basically a greenhouse celebrity!
In the next room I learn why. Phil pulls a string like he’s turning on the light in an attic and the doors in front of us open, revealing an acre of greenhouse outfitted with some serious tech. This newish winter greenhouse is temporarily empty and employees are cleaning it top to bottom. There are LED lights above where the plants will soon grow as well as lighting in between the rows of plants. The lights allow for year-round growing (although they can cast an eerie pink light on snowy or foggy days). To keep the greenhouse warm on those cold prairie days, the room also has horizontal curtains up above the plants: a computer will automatically stretch the curtains across the building when the temperature dips. Finally, to bring in fresh air in the dead of winter, Phil’s installed some air intake units that provide airflow at 20 degrees Celsius. He admits there was “quite a learning curve” since those units were made for Holland’s weather, not Canada’s.
It’s taken a couple thousand steps to journey around the main greenhouses but before I leave, Phil shows me another few rooms filled with assorted veggies including huge basil plants and sweet smelling peppers. They look as vibrant and delicious as the tomatoes and I’m not surprised at all when Phil reaches over to pluck a few peppers.
“I’ve got to grab a couple of these for lunch,” he says.