The Tomato Tragedy of 2019 -- Our First Major Lesson Learned

Tomatoes trellised in the caterpillar tunnel.
Most of our tomatoes are transplanted and trellised in the caterpillar tunnel, despite a comedy of errors in our first year farming. We'll transplant the rest of them today!

As first-year farmers, we’re ambitious. We’re aggressive. And, we might be a little over zealous. The whole “without risk there is no reward idea” shines brightly here at UProoted, but that also means we’re probably going to make mistakes.

For the most part, we’ve had a fantastic start to the season. Those risks have reaped rewards in the form of a good amount of veggies to take to our first few farmer’s markets. But, there’s also what shall be referred to as “The Tomato Tragedy of 2019.” I admit tragedy might be a strong word, but it has such a nice ring.

The fact of the matter is that our situation with tomatoes in year one might actually be more of a comedy in the Greek sense of the word. We think there will be a happy ending, but there’s been a fair share of farce thus far. The two factors leading to the comedy of errors are our timing and our space constraints.

We turned our greenhouse on the second week of March, and our entire first round of crops intended to go into our beds, actually went into our bellies. The beds were still thickly blanketed in snow, so after a long, cold, winter that didn't want to give up, that first delicious mix of spinach, salad greens, and beet greens didn’t go to waste. The second succession was timed perfectly for transplanting, so we’ll adjust accordingly next year.

Tomatoes overtaking our greenhouse.
Our seed-starting greenhouse soon became a jungle of tomato plants, after planting them too early and planting too many!

While we could harvest those crops young and they avoided the compost bin, we can’t say the same for the tomatoes. When we planted tomatoes at the end of March, we were intending for about 20-25 of each variety -- New Girl, Sakura, Brandywine, Striped German, Pink Berkeley Tie Dye, Black Cherry, and Cherry Bomb -- for our own purposes. We decided to plant the rest of the seeds to sell as starts to customers. To be exact, we planted 550 tomatoes.

As April progressed into May, watering the plethora of tomatoes in the greenhouse became the most dreaded of farm chores. At least twice a day, Jon or I would head in for a good hour-plus of weaving the watering wand in and out of the tomato jungle. They were so tightly packed, almost 7 deep in some spots, that I sometimes found myself crouching down in awkward positions to try to see what I was doing beneath the foliage.

The Friday of Memorial Day Weekend at about 8:45pm, a good 12-plus hours into our day of harvesting, washing, and packing, we headed to the greenhouse for the last step to be prepared for our first Saturday Downtown Marquette Farmers Market. We were going to get our tomato starts staged to grab quickly in the morning to take to market.

About nine plants in, Jon called no glory. They were too mature to stand up on their own without the benefit of their fellow greenhouse friends to support them. As he grabbled each plant and passed it down the aisle for me to place in a tray we would carry to market, they collapsed. Instead of looking proud, majestic and green, they simply looked pathetic. So, with some trepidation (mostly on my part), we called it. It’s not the quality we want to present. And, we don’t want to pass our mistakes off on our customers.

Tomatoes being trellised in the seed starting greenhouse.
We crafted a trellis system from scraps we found around the farm to try to squeeze a few more weeks in the warmth of the greenhouse.

So on Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, when we had lined up our neighbor Gabe and his two kids to keep an eye on the farm so that we could escape for an overnight backpacking trip on the North Country Trail, we instead found ourselves taming the tomatoes.

The operation consisted of setting up an emergency trellising system in the greenhouse -- thankfully with resources and scraps we had laying around the farm so that it didn’t cost us anything -- and selecting the cream of the crop to maintain. The rest of the tomatoes ended up in a giant pile outside the greenhouse. We were literally carrying out armfuls of tomato plants that were anywhere from two to four feet tall -- all of them destined for the compost bin.

It’s painful to throw away that many plants on the farm, especially when we think about the resources put into each plant: the seed starting mix, the potting soil, the time to repot it not once but twice, and the hours upon hours of time allocated to watering the jungle.

This is the GIANT pile of tomato plants that are destined for the compost bin. For scale of just how many plants we pitched, that's our 95 pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

But, this week’s new beginning for the majority of the remaining tomatoes in the caterpillar tunnel makes it worth it. If we hadn’t culled the herd, we know we would have lost all of them. We’ve transplanted 85% of the tomatoes into the space we allocated for them in beds 1 and 2. After harvesting the rest of the head lettuce out of those beds for yesterday's market, the remaining 15% we’ll finish up today.

The Tomato Tragedy of 2019 will go down in the memory books as our first major lesson learned -- start two and a half weeks later and perhaps plant a few hundred less tomatoes -- we’re at least able to look back with humor and ask, “What were we thinking?”

But, I do know one thing. After all the time, energy, and effort put into saving our first year’s crop of tomatoes, the reward will taste a little sweeter when we get to pluck those first beauties off the plants.

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