Hydroponic Tomatoes

Don and Janet Hawk of Howard Township earn the majority of their income from raising turkeys, but they have also developed a significant side operation of raising hydroponic tomatoes in a greenhouse. Hydroponics is a fairly complicated process of growing high quality tomatoes throughout the year in a soiless, controlled environment.

Seeds are planted in January. The Hawks set up a well-lit, warm area in their basement to raise seedlings in small cubes of an absorbant material called rock wool. After four days, the plants sprout. These are left in the basement for two to three weeks, and watered with PH controlled water, but no nutrients. The strongest of these plants are then selected to be transplanted into the greenhouse. Janet transplants approximately one thousand plants into larger rock wool cubes which have been soaked in a nutrient solution. After two weeks of steady watering and sunlight, the rock wool cubes and tomato plants are placed on top of grow bags. These are long plastic bags full of perlite, an inert, absorbant substance which the plants will grow into. The plants are then connected up to a computer which controls the water and nutrient solution which are given to the plants. Each plant has its own irrigation tube, and the computer is programmed to feed it based on its size, fruiting stage, and the time of year.

The tomato plants grow for roughly 35 weeks, with no break in the year until they terminate their plants in December, wash out the greenhouse and let it freeze, to help control insects and other natural factors. During the growing process, the greenhouse environment is controlled at a temperature of 75 degrees and fairly steady humidity throughout the year. The Hawks have recently introduced bees into the greenhouse to help the pollination of the plants. Because of the bees, they try to combat other insect problems without employing chemicals. Instead they introduce predator insects into the greenhouse.

Janet raises 850 plants in the greenhouse, and has a goal of yielding thirty five pounds of tomatoes from each plant. She does all of the greenhouse work, directly caring for the plants, while Don mixes the water and fertilizers and generally makes sure everything runs properly. Their children help with the marketing aspects: wiping the tomatoes, stickering, and boxing them, and then delivering them to local grocery stores. You can find hydroponic tomatoes in the produce section from April-December, with bright blue "Hydroponic Tomatoes: Vine Ripened, Locally Grown" stickers on each one.

Photo Credit: Don Hawk

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