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Greenhouse-grown tomatoes provide fresh fruit during off-season

It's hard to miss the bright red barns of the Slay estate gracing both sides of Highway 431 in White Plains, Ala. For vegetable lovers, it's even harder to pass by the small, white sign with a bright red tomato beckoning travelers to satisfy their curiosity and their taste buds.

One step inside the red building with the words, "Slay's Apple House" painted across the front will reveal a small fruit stand of tomatoes, a Tampa Nugget cigar box and a hand-written sign with the following words: "Tomatoes $5 bag, $10 box, $20 box, Put money in box."

"We operate on the honor system here," says 79-year-old Prather Slay about the direct marketing of tomatoes on his farm. "So far, no one has cheated us."

Slay has been supplying the public with greenhouse-grown tomatoes from his roadside sales room since last December, a venture he says is a learning experience. "Sometimes, I don't know whether I'm running the greenhouse, or it's running me."

This is Slay's first farming attempt with a greenhouse, after an unmanageable deer population forced him to end his 36-year domination of the apple-orchard business in East Alabama's Chambers County. "I've got to feed my kids and grandkids some kind of way, so I decided to feed them on tomatoes."

Two years ago, Slay pushed up his apple trees and started plans for a greenhouse, a potentially costly business venture, according to Richard Snyder, Extension vegetable specialist for Mississippi State University. "The up-front cost for building a greenhouse can range from $15,000 to $20,000," Synder says.

Slay minimized his start-up costs by buying an already-intact greenhouse and using his family to help him build last summer. "We lost a little time because it rained so much. But by September, we got the tomatoes in, and by December we were trying to market them," Slay says.

Slay knew that creating a demand for his product would be a challenge, but help from Auburn University and a local television station made marketing much easier.

"Before we got the demand, Auburn helped us by selling some of the tomatoes through the Auburn University Meats Lab," says Kim Slay, Prather's daughter-in-law. "What really helped us was the Farm City Day we hosted here on the farm last fall."

A local television station covered the event and recorded clips of Prather standing in the greenhouse with his big, red tomatoes. "They looped the tapes through once a month," Kim says. "Everybody would tell me that they saw my daddy-in-law on television."

The free advertising worked wonders for creating demand, and Prather says he has received compliments from repeat customers from as far away as Ashville, Ala. "One of them came back and told me, 'I don't know what you've done to those tomatoes, but I'm addicted to them.'"

Raymond Kessler, associate professor in the department of horticulture at Auburn University, says the Slay's business is one of many across the Southeast offering customers a superior product. "It is a better product than Florida-grown tomatoes, but it takes skill and know-how to get into the business," Kessler says.

Prather says he has sold everything except what his family eats, and he attributes his prosperity to proper niche marketing. He plans to plant in July and harvest from October to late June, the time before field-grown and garden tomatoes are available. "We have a reputation for selling good, ripe tomatoes when no one else has them."

Creating those juicy, red tomatoes is a labor-intensive occupation, according to Prather. "You certainly can't go off on a cruise without good help."

Prather says the 3,000 square-foot greenhouse requires about three man-hours of work per day, with jobs ranging from pruning to pollinating his 700 tomato plants. He closely monitors the amount of water and fertilizer the plants receive daily using a tall, solar instrument Prather calls an "eye."

The "eye" measures the amount of sunlight that filters through the greenhouse and registers that measurement to a box that determines how much water the plants should receive. The irrigation system then pumps the water through two barrels of fertilizer and sprays the mixture into the individual plants.

Each of Prather's tomato plants is grown hydroponically, or without soil, in bags of pine bark, a medium Kessler says provides more of a buffer than regular soil to preserve fertility.

Brian Jackson, a graduate student in the department of horticulture at Auburn University, is currently conducting research to determine if alternatives to pine bark are more economical and efficient.

One of the alternatives Jackson is researching is cotton gin composts. "They're relatively cheap and easy to get," Jackson says. "The driving force for our research is to pave the way for growers with cheaper substrates and actual data on yields."

Prather says the most costly problem he has encountered with the greenhouse has been the presence of white flies. According to Snyder, Prather is not alone with this particular pest problem. "The biggest problem for growers of greenhouse tomatoes is managing white flies because they transmit diseases and severely damage crops," Synder says.

Including insecticide expenses, the greenhouse costs between $8,000 to $9,000 annually to operate, warranting the $2 per pound price of the greenhouse-grown tomatoes. "You just couldn't sell for less than that and break even," Prather says.

For now, Prather has no plans to expand his operation and says that the many details of having just one greenhouse is enough to keep him busy. "I've learned a lot, and there's a lot more to learn."

Rebecca Bearden is a senior at Auburn University majoring in agricultural communications. She is completing her internship requirement with Southeast Farm Press.

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