Sales of greenhouse tomatoes from the LSU AgCenter’s Red River Research Station’s spring crop are expected to top 65,000 pounds by the end of July — making this the best year ever.
“Our tomatoes look nice, taste good and have a long shelf life,” said H.Y. Hanna, the scientist at the Bossier City, La., station who has been conducting research on how to grow better greenhouse tomatoes for the past 11 years. “The tomatoes have superior quality and flavor because they are grown under controlled environmental conditions that protect them from damaging rain, hot days and cold nights.”
Sales of the excess tomatoes from the research project have become so popular in the local area that they are an annual event, Hanna said.
“They are the best I ever ate,” said Edith Banks, produce general manager at the Barksdale Air Force Base Commissary. “All employees love them. When we don’t have them, customers go mad.”
The commissary has carried the tomatoes for three years. Banks said the tomatoes have consistent quality.
“They are delicious. There are no spots or ugly places. You don’t have to peel them,” said Sue Ballard of Shreveport, whose Bible study group has been buying the tomatoes for years.
The 2,400 tomato plants in the greenhouses are fed properly, kept at a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees F and protected from insects and disease, Hanna said.
Last year, Hanna put in a raised gutter system under the plants to keep excess moisture off the greenhouse floor.
“This lowered humidity, which means there is less chance for disease,” Hanna said. “The new gutter system is part of the reason our yields were so high this year.”
The other reason is extending the sale through July. “We had been concluding that sale by the end of June,” Hanna said.
In 2006, the year the new gutter system was installed, more than 56,000 pounds were sold. The year before, more than 54,000 pounds were sold.
Hanna uses the information gathered from his research to teach people in the greenhouse tomato business how to do better. The station hosts a greenhouse tomato field day every February.
“Tomato plants need water, carbon dioxide and sun energy. We supply them with water and other minerals 12 times a day, from sunrise to sunset, to assist the plant to make sugars and proteins,” Hanna said.
The fruit begins as a flower, and the flower has to be pollinated by electric vibrators or bumblebees in the greenhouse. It takes approximately 50 days from pollination to produce a mature fruit. Each plant produces around 50 fruit that weigh approximately half a pound each.
“We leave only the nice looking fruit on the plant and remove the bad ones to save plant energy for better quality fruit,” Hanna said.
The tomatoes are sold to the public in 5-pound boxes for $10. In a recent informal survey, two-fifths of the tomato buyers were from outside of Shreveport-Bossier City.
Funds generated go into research programs at the station, said Jere McBride, LSU AgCenter regional director.
“The tomato program is the only one of its kind in the Mid-South and supports greenhouse producers in the surrounding states of Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi,” McBride said.
Hanna said the tomato shelf life is three weeks, and he recommends that the tomatoes not be refrigerated.
Hanna also sells a fall crop of greenhouse tomatoes — but the spring tomatoes produce three and four times the yields of the fall tomatoes.