Walter Ross— His mission is to produce the planet’s best-tasting tomatoes

One thing is certain: Walter Ross setshigh goals for himself. “Our mission is to have the best-tasting tomatoes on the planet,” he says.

Whether his Farmhouse Tomatoes meet that standard yet is something for tomato aficionados to debate, but for his part, Ross thinks his hydroponic greenhouse-grown heirloom tomatoes can satisfy even the pickiest palates.

“Everything we’re doing is all about quality and flavor and, yes, still a red round tomato. This is where antique meets high tech for the best flavor experience,” he says.

Ross, whose operation is at Lake Worth, Fla., focuses much of his effort on a half-dozen ‘old-timey’ heirlooms with long histories of pleasing taste buds: Red Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Gold Medal, Green Zebra, Red Zebra, and Black Plum. His 40,000 tomato plants grow in three greenhouses totaling 160,000 square feet and are sold to high-end restaurants, gourmet shops and grocery stores like The Fresh Market and Whole Foods Market.

“The only way to compete in this business is to create a product that stands alone,” he says. “Is your product better than the others? With tomatoes, that equates to flavor.”

Despite the heirloom fascination Ross developed over the past decade, he began in 1996 with hybrid varieties in a 32,000 square foot greenhouse. That venture ended when it became obvious the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made it tough for U.S. tomatoes to compete with those from Mexico.

“When a 15-pound flat of tomatoes that had been worth $22.50 sells for $6, that gets your attention. Oh, man, I’m in trouble – now what do I do? You think that maybe this is not the best business to be in.”

After considering several options, Ross decided to continue growing tomatoes but switch to heirlooms. In 2001, he changed from being a commodity producer to a niche marketer.

“I was the pioneer in greenhouse heirloom production. I picked three beefsteak heirlooms and three cherry varieties to see what worked best, and the beefsteaks won out. During the last couple of years, I went back and included some cherry and cocktail varieties.

“I like the whole aspect of doing this. I’m growing something that’s kind of unique; I had to learn how to do it as I was doing it. I wear a lot of hats: chemist, entomologist, plant pathologist, bumblebee expert, grower and businessman. There’s something going on seven days a week — it’s never boring. Being a hydroponic greenhouse heirloom tomato grower is a lifestyle, that’s for sure. To be successful at it, you’ve got to be able to handle that.”

Walking the rows of tomatoes at his larger greenhouse operation on the west side of Delray Beach, Ross emphasizes the details that make the difference in producing tomatoes that taste just right and make a profit for the grower at the same time.

“A lot of labor is involved with greenhouse tomatoes. Twice a week the plants have to be suckered. Once a week we strip the lower leaves. Once a week we clip the plants to keep them growing right. That vine will be 30 feet long.

“We shake the plants to thump the pollen. There are also boxes of bumblebees throughout the greenhouse to pollinate the tomatoes. We have to keep on the lookout for fungus problems and for insects, too. If something gets started in a greenhouse, that can be bad. If, let’s say, there is a problem with a disease, we try to localize it and take care of it with a backpack sprayer.”

If tomato plants had emotions, Ross’ would be among the happiest anywhere — they lack nothing during their seven months of production.

“We create ideal growing conditions,” he says. “My hydroponic recipe for fertility is crafted after weekly leaf tissue analysis. We keep an eye on what the plant is doing. If it needs magnesium, calcium or other things, we follow the ranges set for sufficient nutrients. The goal is that the plant ideally never hurts for anything.

“Growing heirlooms is very different from growing greenhouse hybrids, which have been developed for disease resistance and other characteristics — they are a different sort of plant.

“With heirlooms, we’re dealingwith the original plant going back 150 years or longer, just like it was when it was first collected. Hybrids are beautiful plants and very uniform, but heirlooms get kind of crazy. You have to control the flowers and the sets and do a lot of hand pruning.

“The heirloom tomato wants to be a bush, and it’s my job to control it to be a vine. This is done by intensive cultural practices, a lot of pruning and suckering, a lot of hand labor. We have to give them light and control the heat — it’s necessary to stay on top of things day by day.”

Working with bumblebees requires a different sort of expertise. Bumblebees cost $110 a hive and have a four to five-week life cycle. In the seven month tomato production period, Farmhouse goes through 80 hives. Relying on the bumblebees for pollination means no pesticides that might harm them can be used.

“We can’t use honeybees because they orient on the sun. Bring in honeybees and next thing you know they’re all up in the top of the greenhouse. Bumblebees orient on a physical object, so we can put the buckets for them up and they just naturally do what we need them to do. At the end of the day, they head straight back to the hive.”

Bumblebees fit right into Ross’ production philosophy: He uses organic practices even though his tomatoes are not officially considered organic.

“The reason is because we’re growing the plants in perlite, a sterile volcanic ore that’s mined. Everything else we do is considered organic. If we have a whitefly problem, we use pyrethrin, an African daisy extract, a natural compound. If there’s a disease problem, we’ll spray with copper or sulfur. Post-harvest, we use food grade hydrogen peroxide.”

Tomatoes are scouted daily to head off potential problems.

“We scout every day but we do every third row — after three days, we’ve done the whole thing. The guys working the crop are asked to keep an eye out for anything that looks unusual; they’re working through here all the time, doing something.”

Ross employs a crew of about 18 workers, split between his two greenhouse locations. Many of his employees were born in Guatemala and work well together.

“Building a team is very important,” he says. “I’m very thankful for all my workers. These guys are on the front line and I treat them like family. You’ve got to have the ‘corazon’ (heart) to work here. It’s not easy work — you’ve got to think about what you’re doing all the time and move along quickly. This kind of work is a learned practice; it usually takes a week or two to get comfortable with the cultural practices, the harvest and the things we do post-harvest. I tell them, ‘You take care of the company and I will take care of you.’”

The workers and Ross eat a meal together every other weekend, and he hands out gift cards for use at local stores as rewards.

“They really like it when we all go to a pizza parlor and have a good time. I like them, and I hope they enjoy working for Farmhouse. When I say they’re like family, I really mean it.”

He relies heavily on Vicky Mendez, a 17-year employee who learned the heirloom tomato business alongside him. “She’s our head packer. She scouts plants for insects. If she finds a disease, she brings me a leaf in a bag, I whip out my loupe, and if I’m not sure what it is, it goes to the University of Florida plant pathologists at Belle Glade and they help identify it. She has a lot of responsibility.”

Vicky’s son, Marvin, is now Farmhouse Tomatoes’ manager at the Delray Beach location.

“Marvin used to run a golf course,” Ross says, “and a lot of the practical experience he got there, with things like irrigation, fits in here. His real talent is managing people and being organized. Every outfit needs someone like him, who has a feel for just about everything that’s going on. He helps make sure our employees really care about doing a good job. These guys don’t like seeing anybody new come in and just mess around — they’ll get all over that in a hurry.”

Even if you grow the planet’s best-tastingtomatoes, without good marketing it’s still possible no one will buy them. From the beginning, Ross worked hard to convince potential buyers that his tomatoes were second to none, with much more than just good flavor.

“Yes, we sell taste — but we sell more than that. In the greenhouse environment, you have to be clean all the time or you’re just asking for fungus and bacteria problems. Food safety is key, and we are certified; we run Florida food safety audits and, in addition to that, Primus Labs audits. Both are pretty tough. With Primus, it’s all or nothing — you either pass or you don’t; there’s no in-between. We have a superior rating there.

“Our shipper, Pero Family Farms, is located next door to us in Delray Beach, and they are HACCP certified. Traceability is key, and we have trace-back programs through Primus Labs. It’s on each box, down to lot number, and we can peg it to day and location. If a recall were necessary, it would inform the public and the right people. We’ve never had that problem, thankfully, but we’re very careful. There’s so much in the chain of origin that can snag the deal, something you’ve never seen before.

“I don’t think there’s enough auditing going on in the industry. Does auditing guarantee food safety? No, it doesn’t — but it’s great because it keeps everybody on their toes.”

His timing with heirloom production turned out to be just about perfect. Farmhouse came along with a reliable supply just when retail customers became more focused on taste as well as local foods.

“The retail customer has been very influential in bringing a desire for flavor to distributors, markets and buyers. My customers are not just looking for the cheapest tomato they can buy with the greatest margin. The public palate is now wanting flavor and different varieties.

“My tomato goes to high-end places in south Florida and the northeastern U.S. It has to go to that demographic because it costs at least 50 percent more to produce than a field-grown tomato, depending on the year and utility costs.”

Consumers want to know where their food originates and how it was produced, Ross says.

“They have become very savvy. They want to buy local; they want to buy U.S.-produced food; they want what’s created here. Part of it is that we’ve lost so much of our industrial base to other countries, but U.S. farmers are still making something right here. We’re producing food, and food is really important.

“What we’re seeing is that people more than ever are aware of the connection with their food. Chefs are doing things like putting on their menus that they have Farmhouse heirloom tomatoes in their salads. Some say they have Lake Worth tomatoes or Walt’s heirloom tomatoes. It helps me because I’ve become known around here as that tomato guy.” 

Ross’ buyers get detailed informationabout his tomatoes when they’re shipped. “We e-mail a photo to the buyer so they know exactly what’s on the way. This protects us, too — don’t tell me my tomatoes showed up at stage 4 when they just left here yesterday.

“In addition to the e-mailed photo, the buyer gets shipping details, core temperature, Brix level, the trucking company that’s making the delivery, delivery date and an invoice.”

Ross also uses social media marketing to spread the word about his tomatoes.

“I do a lot of work on LinkedIn, the business social networking site. It gets my name out to executive chefs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. If they accept my invitation to join me on LinkedIn, they’ve probably looked at my website, at least. Then, maybe they’ll be savvy enough to ask a distributor for Farmhouse Tomatoes.”

It’s been a remarkable journey for Ross, who grew up in New York State and moved to Florida two decades ago, searching for a warmer climate. He had no agricultural background other than a few years working for a nursery after arriving in Florida.

His initial greenhouse tomato-growing venture, with the Trust hybrid, proved disastrous the very first year — yellow leaf curl virus wiped out 75 percent of his plants. It was a difficult start, by any measure.

“I had just built a new greenhouse. The seed cost 20 cents apiece. It was tough. I tried to recoup and grew some local seedlings, Sanibel and Florida 47, just to get some cash flow. I wasn’t going to quit, though, and things were great until NAFTA came along and really hurt the U.S. tomato industry. I became very frustrated with NAFTA.”

But even those experiences couldn’t force Ross out of the business.

“I didn’t want to quit. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I think I share a lot of personality traits with other farmers. I’m optimistic by nature; I like to take on a challenge; I want to create a product that will stand alone above the crowd. Back then, when I said I wanted to be a greenhouse grower of heirloom tomatoes, people said ‘you can’t do that — it’ll never work, because heirlooms will only grow outside.’

“I proved heirlooms can be grown in a greenhouse … and it seems to be working out pretty well.”

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