Tomato growing a family affair

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Farm Forum

NEWELL, S.D. — Mark and Becky Kirby have gotten their hands pretty dirty for the past 17-plus years in Newell.

After moving to the area from Tennessee, they wanted to do something that would be some good, reliable income and that they would enjoy. Digging in the dirt seems to fill the bill.

Each year, the Kirby’s, including their five children, John, Jessica, Blaise, Nathaniel, Sarah and David, plant around 1,250 seeds in January in small bedding trays and grow them a bit under fluorescent lights. They then transplant the best 1,000 or so of those into separate four-inch pots and put those in the small greenhouse attached to the south end of their home.

Finally, they transplant around 750 individual plants into each of the two large “pipe” greenhouses. The tomatoes are a beefsteak variety which is a great fruit for sales at places such as local restaurants and grocery stores, as well as Gages Nursery and Black Hills Milk in Spearfish and the Farmer’s Market in Rapid City.

If you have eaten a tomato on something at the Blue Line or T.J.’s Café, or purchased tomatoes at the Newell Grocery store, then you have had a Kirby tomato.

The two varieties of tomatoes the Kirby’s grow are bred specifically for growth in the greenhouse. That is the way most large producers do things. However, the Kirby’s have remained true to their ethics, which includes using no pesticides or herbicides and using only Miracle Grow for fertilizer.

The soil in the greenhouses is rich in natural nutrients and worms abound. The couple also uses insects as a natural bug-slayer, with lady bugs and a certain type of wasp that eat other aphids and spider mites that have a tendency to feed on the plants.

And the tomatoes show that tender loving care. Huge red tomatoes hung heavy on the vines which are pulled toward a wire high above them and tied off, making it easier for the Kirby’s to pick them twice weekly from May through October.

“After 16 years we decided we were serious about this,” said Becky. “We had our own cardboard boxes with our name on them made up.”

The business transports to the farmers market and other distributors in wooden crates that Kirby built and they recycle the cardboard boxes, picking them back up from local distributors and those who purchase direct at the farm.

The couple built the greenhouses in stages, putting the first one up and then a couple years later adding the second. They have no trouble selling the tomatoes, especially after people have had a taste of the fresh, sweet goodness.

The greenhouses are temperature controlled with a combination of propane and coal fired heat. The watering system is automated and each greenhouse has rows for easy access. With the plants growing in the soil which is a rich, dark brown, building a healthy root system and strong vines, the plants are a pretty site.

“The kids all help in some fashion,” said Becky as she talked about the amount of work it takes to plant, grow and continually harvest the bright red fruit. They do sell some green tomatoes for those who may want them for green tomato pie or pickles. They always have plenty ready for anyone that stops by. With the humidity controlled it is an ideal growing environment.

They rarely have issues with loss, but last fall they were concerned when the heavy, wet snow started piling up during an early October blizzard.

They decided to pick everything that was even close to getting ripe in case the greenhouses should be lost under the weight of the snow. They were unable to sell much of what they picked, however, and only ended up being able to transport to distributors a small amount.

“Otherwise, it has gone pretty well over the years,” said Becky.