Patrick Hegwood and Malcolm Tucker are making it their business to fool Mother Nature.
The two friends are working to prove that by using the most scientific farming methods available, they can grow top-quality, tasty tomatoes year-round.
Hegwood, who recently retired as resident director of LSU’s Burden Center, and Tucker, who worked for years at LSU’s Rural Life Museum, were both looking for a project. They are farmers at heart with a lifelong interest in growing vegetables.
“I was playing around with tomatoes at LSU,” said Hegwood.
Last fall, they came up with the idea to build a large greenhouse on property near Wilson and to grow tomatoes in the dead of winter.
And they were not talking about just any tomatoes.
Hegwood and Tucker believed that if they had the perfect, ideal conditions, they could produce winter tomatoes that tasted as good as homegrown, local summer tomatoes.
The two had worked together at the Burden Center, where Hegwood started the LSU produce market.
“Malcolm would come in and help me,” Hegwood said. “We got to be friends.”
In September 2010, they built their 30-by-102-foot tubular greenhouse and started Bon Vivant Produce.
After careful study, the two men selected Holland Hybrid seed for their plants.
“These varieties are grown specifically for greenhouses,” Hegwood said. “In Holland pretty much everything is grown in a greenhouse.”
They ordered Heritage, Big Dina and Blitz, three varieties that have been developed for their excellent quality and taste.
“They can tolerate low light and high humidity,” Hegwood said.
To develop these hybrid seeds, every blossom has to be hand pollinated.
“It’s all very scientific,” Hegwood said.
Because the seed requires so much attention, it is expensive at 60 cents a seed.
Tucker and Hegwood planted in plastic bags filled with a combination of partially composted pine bark and peat moss. They ended up with 600 plants, two to a bag.
The plants are watered and fertilized with a modified Steiner nutrient solution.
“A Professor Steiner at Texas A&M came up with a fertilizer formula that contains all of the elements tomatoes need to grow,” Hegwood said. The mixture, which is delivered in water, is basically three parts nitrogen, 13 parts phosphorus and 29 parts potassium along with minor chemical elements.
“We have a control element that measures sunlight in solar units,” Hegwood said. “Every time we accumulate a certain number of solar units, the element turns on the water and fertilizer. The more sunlight the plants get, the more it feeds.”
Tucker and Hegwood have other controlled conditions in their greenhouse. They imported a hive of bees to assist with the pollination. They also carefully manage the temperature to keep it above 57 degrees, even with last winter’s 20-degree nights.
Rather than stake their tomatoes, Hegwood and Tucker tie the tomatoes to metal poles at ceiling height that run the length of the greenhouse. The plants, which are able to grow the entire height of the greenhouse, produce in clusters. By early summer, most of the plants were 12 feet tall.
Once a week, Tucker and Hegwood harvest tomatoes, which are allowed to ripen on the vine. “Our target is one pound per plant per week,” Hegwood said.
They then drive the tomatoes to New Orleans, where they are grabbed up by some of Loui-siana’s leading chefs. They are now on the menu at Emeril Lagasse’s three restaurants, Emeril’s, Nola and Delmonico, as well as at Lilette, Clancy’s, Restaurant Patois and Herbsaint.
“The chefs are practically waiting for them,” Tucker said. “They have developed dishes for them.”
The tomatoes are available to the public at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans and at Calvin’s Bocage Market in Baton Rouge.
On July 15, Hegwood and Tucker will “terminate” their plants that by then will have produced some 18,000 pounds of tomatoes. They will replant in the same soil bags in September.
While the winter greenhouse is resting, Hegwood and Tucker are working on a new project in an adjacent greenhouse recently completed.
They are trying their hand at heirloom tomatoes. This greenhouse has no fans, no heaters and only natural ventilation.
The tiny plants that have grown from seeds are being planted in bags of coconut hulls. They should be ready within 90 days or so.
Heirlooms are not easy to grow.
“They are not disease resistant or insect resistant,” Hegwood said. “They don’t yield much.”
But the chefs love them. People line up to pay $5 a pound for them at the New Orleans farmers market.
“When we say heirloom, the chefs perk up,” Tucker said.
He and Hegwood are having the time of their lives on their tomato project. They are convinced they can have tomatoes year-round.
“We want to have tomatoes at garden-fresh quality when nobody has them,” Hegwood said.