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Missouri farmer focuses on growing popular crop

Tomatoes

Tom Goeke knows his tomatoes.

The Missouri farmer has spent the past 35 years perfecting them, and his determination has paid off. He has no problem selling tomatoes on his St. Charles, Missouri, farm, unloading tens of thousands of pounds each year.

The kicker: He sells all from his farm stand. No farmers markets, no grocery stores, no delivery service.

“I don’t have to sell them anywhere else,” he said.

No brag, just fact. But Goeke gladly shares tips with others about growing tomatoes at home, passing on failures as well as successes.

“Everybody makes mistakes, and so do we,” he said. “I could write a book about what not to do.”

Tomatoes are the top vegetable grown in backyard gardens. (Most people don’t care that they are considered fruits, botanically.) They are versatile, they are relatively easy to grow and they produce vigorously.

While not a difficult plant to raise, many do-it-yourselfers could do a better job, Goeke said. He gladly provides advice for growing bigger, healthier tomatoes. Basically, less can be more.

“Many people just care for them too much,” he said. “That’s the biggest problem people have with growing tomatoes.”

That often means too much feeding and watering. Nutrients should be applied only about once a week. Another mistake many make is watering too often.

“They like to water every day. That’s a no-no,” Goeke said. “Always feed just once a week. And don’t water all the time. Also, plant everything on a ridge. Nothing likes wet feet.”

Goeke grew up on a vegetable farm. After a stint in the service, he went to work for National Cash Register, and later started his own office equipment business. He eventually decided literally to get back to his roots and started a produce farm.

He has a small orchard, where he grows apples and peaches. He also produces watermelons and pumpkins. Tomatoes, however, are his forte. He grows 12,000 to 15,000 plants annually and sells about 8,000 pounds each week.

He feeds his plants generously, giving them weekly doses of micronutrients. Goeke stresses that backyard gardeners should do the same. Magnesium sulfate — sold as Epsom salt — is a good additive to plants.

“It makes the tomatoes taste better,” he said.

He experiments with unusual heirlooms and hybrids, growing about 15 varieties, half from European heirlooms. They include the large and colorful Pink Berkley Tie-Dye.

“It’s a big, beautiful purple tomato,” he said. “It has great flavor and holds up well.”

Despite his expertise, this season has been a tough one. Conditions were cold and wet during planting. He also encountered problems with mites, cutworms and diseases. He’s had better luck in his hoop house. He considers indoor farming the wave of the future for tomatoes.

“Within the next five years everything will be grown inside,” he said. “You get a lot more product. Big companies are going to start buying up buildings like mad. You won’t need pesticides or insecticides, and it will all be organic.”

Meanwhile, Goeke continues to thrive.

“I do everything I can to make that tomato,” he said. “It has to look good, taste good and have good texture. How well you do your job is how big a piece of the pie you’re going to have.”

At a glance

Here are a few observations about tomatoes, courtesy of University of Illinois Extension:

  • Fresh, ripe tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator. Flavor and texture begin to deteriorate when the temperature drops below 54 degrees. Store tomatoes at room temperature in a paper bag.
  • To peel tomatoes, blanch by dropping them into boiling water for about 30 seconds (longer for firm tomatoes such as Roma), then plunge into a bowl of ice water. The skin will pull away easily.

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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