7/9/2014 1:44:00 PM Growing a family business in hydroponics
Ruth Erickson Chronotype staff
Those who have traveled on Hwy. 8 west of Barron have probably seen the signs for locally grown tomatoes and cucumbers. Follow those signs to 1399 13th St., Barron, and motorists will make their way up a long, curving driveway to Vermillion Produce, a greenhouse at the residence of the Cam and Deb Goertzen family. Open the door to the greenhouse and customers are greeted by the scent of freshly picked tomatoes and the sight of a table full of ripe, red tomatoes. The white board sign says, "Welcome, cherry tomatoes, $3.50/pint, Beefsteak tomatoes, $2.50 a pound, cucumbers in fridge, $2 each. Questions? Call 715-296-5015." Next to the prices is a scale and plastic bags for customers to weigh and to carry their purchases. Most often a family member will pop in from the nearby house or barn to take payment and answer any questions customers may have. The business is simple and no frills. That is just the way their growing number of customers like it. From the front room, customers can look through a doorway of clear, slitted plastic into the greenhouse, where the produce is grown hydroponically in a waist-high setup.
Gardener at heart Cam Goertzen was raised in central Kansas, where as a boy he already had his own produce patch where he grew watermelon, cantaloupe and sweet corn. "I was doing that from the heart," he said, recalling it wasn't a chore but a hobby. His mother had her own garden patch. His family moved to Barron County when he was 17, and he started working for dairy farmers. After several years on several farms, Cam and his wife, Deb, who is originally from Michigan, went to Brazil as mission workers. They lived in Goiania, a city of a million and a half, which he called "a new world to the country boy." Living in a small house with cement all around it, Cam was not able to shed his desire to garden. So he asked the home owner if he could break up a corner of the cement so he could plant some sweet corn. The owner agreed as long as he replaced it before he left. The avid gardener said the soil turned out to be very productive, so he broke up some more of the cement and planted more. Cam said the Brazilians thought he was crazy when he asked for the trash collected on the streets after the Saturday morning markets. The biodegradable waste made the most beautiful compost, he said. The next place they stayed had a large yard where he was able to grow lettuce on raised beds. Spotting an abandoned lot two blocks away, he got permission to plant corn. As he was planting row after row, an old-timer said it wouldn't work, but he just kept at it. The lot produced so well they had enough corn for their own consumption and shelled the corn and ground it with a grinder to feed the chickens. The well-fed chickens laid enough eggs for them to sell.
Discovering his mission After 6 years, the Goertzens returned to Barron County, where they put together a 40-head herd of cattle on a farm near what is now the Country Lane Pantry. A year later, they moved to a farm west of Barron and bought out the remainder of Gary Nelson's herd, putting them up to 60 head. By this time the Goertzen family had seven children and they were still living in a trailer house and somehow making it work. To supplement their income, Cam did drywall work, a trade he learned from his dad. Growing their own produce helped stretch the budget. "I went back into milking and drywall work, but we always had a garden," Cam said. As the children grew older and moved on with their lives, the Goertzens decided to have some tabletop discussions about their future. Their first decision was to buy 40 acres from Mildred Bjugstad, add a second floor to the house and move the family into more spacious quarters. Next they decided to work toward getting out of dairy farming and into a greenhouse operation, fully aware that both professions have risks. The family did a lot of research on what to grow and how to grow it. "I enjoyed growing lettuce in Brazil," he said. "I knew they did it hydroponically. I heard about a lettuce growing operation in Manitoba." Then someone suggested they would have an easier time marketing tomatoes than lettuce. "That steered us toward researching tomatoes," he said. He discovered that a friend of theirs who had also been in Brazil but was now living in North Dakota had started doing tomato hydroponics and was enthused about it. "I didn't know anything about hydroponics," Cam said. "I was an outdoor gardener." The Goertzens found another hydroponic operation much closer by noticing that the tomatoes sold at MarketPlace Foods had a Red Cedar Produce label. Finding an address for the business, they programmed it into their GPS and away they went on a day in the middle of January 2009, not knowing what they would find. Eventually they came upon two greenhouses in the middle of nowhere and got out to investigate. "I had never seen a hydroponic tomato operation," Cam said. "It was perfect timing. He had just put his plants in. It just hit me that this is where I belong. You could say the rest is history." Although initially the Menomonie area grower was not keen on competition and advised him to "grow flowers," the two soon became friends and have helped each other. Next Cam located a used greenhouse in Texas but scrapped the idea of buying it because it was a bad year for farming. Corn prices were "terrible high" and it was a scramble just to hold it all together. Once they got their tax refund, his wife encouraged him to call and see if the greenhouse was still for sale. He called, it was, so they flew down, purchased the greenhouse and drove it back to Wisconsin in a rental truck. By October 2010 construction of their hydroponic greenhouse operation began, and he worked all winter on it.
Busy as a bee When everything was in place and ready to go, Cam made a 9-hour drive to Manitoba in February to get 50-day old, well-established tomato plants. He said there were a couple reasons why he chose that route. One, they were started in a nursery and grafted, like fruit trees, to give them more vigor. Two, they came with two grow heads. He said the 450 plants with two grow heads for a possibility of 900 plants, were all boxed up and stacked in their van. Once home, the plants were quickly taken into the greenhouse, which was heated and ready for them, with the irrigation going. Cam was happy to report that he did not lose any that first season, but he was very vigilant with his investment. He slept on a couch in the front room of the greenhouse, and his two outdoor stoves had to be filled every 4 hours. "I wasn't going to go anywhere," he said. "I had the boys making wood as fast as they could." He said there was a lot of learning that went with the controller that feeds the plants its nutrients through a piping system and he was nervous. Cam made a lot of calls to the others he knew in the hydroponic business that first season, and he still does. "Like any other industry where there's a lot of variables, situations arise," he said. He got his bees from a supplier in Canada, each hive coming with 75-100 adult workers. "You can see bruises on the flowers when they have been pollinated," he said. "Excessive bruising means they are hungry and hitting the flowers too many times." Cam said the plants can abort the flowers if that occurs. The situation can be remedied by getting the bees some pollen on closing the hives. "You learn," the grower said. "You have to be on it all the time." He said one box of bees is suppose to last 5-8 weeks but he had one quit at 3 weeks. A trick he learned when the bees failed was to use a feather duster on the plants as all they need are some vibrations.
Marketer Cam said that after he had purchased his first plants, he was told, "You just became a marketer." "I thought I had just become a tomato grower," he said, while soon realizing the truth of those words. Once you have a product, you have to find a market for that product to be successful. It becomes even more crucial with a product with a short shelf life like tomatoes. Since his first year, Louie's Finer Meats of Cumberland has carried his tomatoes, and he sells more there than anywhere except at his greenhouse site. Two other loyal customers since the start have been Brentwood Senior Communities of Rice Lake and Austad's Super Valu of Turtle Lake. Now Barron Care and Rehab is also purchasing his produce. Farmer's markets in Barron and Rice Lake have been another good way to get his produce out to the public. From the start, Vermillion Produce has been at the Country Lane Farmers Market of rural Barron, which is open Thursdays from 2-8 p.m.; and at the Rice Lake Farmers Market, now set up in the parking lot of Gordy's on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Over time, they have increased their market deliveries to Gordy's County Market in Chetek, Ladysmith, Rice Lake and Shell Lake and Barney's of Weyerhaeuser. As sales have picked up, the Goertzens have set a schedule for picking on Mondays and Thursdays and delivering on Tuesdays and Fridays. He credits his wife, Deb, for saving the day that first season when she suggested putting signs up on Hwy. 8 and at the end of their driveway announcing locally grown tomatoes. That has continued to be the most effective means of marketing. If the signs are pulled up, that means they are out of tomatoes for the day. Deb also came up with the name Vermillion Produce, named after a nearby river, just as Red Cedar Produce of Menomonie is named after the Red Cedar River. The tomato growers said giving away samples of their tomatoes also helped to develop a customer base. "I gave some away and said here, try, and see what you think. That's the way it took off." A few times each year when they have an abundance, they make donations to St. Vincent de Paul's soup kitchen in Rice Lake. He said Deb will also can tomatoes if they end up with more than they can sell, so none get thrown away. Cam said that the longer they are in the business, the more they are learning from their customers. "I have heard of 120 different ways to use tomatoes," he commented. "I could complete an amazing tomato recipe book."
Growing business By fall 2012, the Goertzens no longer needed the cows as supplemental income and sold the herd. He did more drywall jobs through the winter. As their markets grew, they went in search of a larger greenhouse, found a 44- by 128-foot one in Ohio, dismantled their 34- by 72-foot one, and put up the larger one through the winter. "It was brutal," recalls Goertzen, who pushed to get it done so he and his wife could take a trip to see their daughter in Brazil scheduled for the middle of January. "It was a wonderful break to refresh the mind," he said, although he had to recruit a bunch of volunteers upon his return home to finish the interior in time for the plants. "They did a terrific job," Cam said. "They made it possible. I was very thankful for that and plan to compensate them this summer with some barbecues." The tomato plants in their first greenhouse were at ground level, but all the planting, pruning and picking was hard on the knees. So while making the investment to go larger, they also made it more worker friendly, raising the plants to waist level. That necessitated installing rows of tracks and a rail car to stand on that can be raised to see the tops of his plants. "I do a lot of pruning, clipping and work at the top," said Goertzen, who is able to extend the growing season to November. Along with his Beefsteak tomatoes, new this year in his expanded greenhouse are cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. The soilless plants are placed in a long, narrow dehydrated bag of coconut fiber that expands when water is added. There are no nutrients in the bag; the only nutrients they get are what is injected into the line of piping. "Hydroponics need to be tended so closely," Cam said. "It only gets what you give it." He said it takes 7-8 weeks for a tomato to go from flower to fruit, while it takes just 10 days for a cucumber to do the same. While they have all the work they can handle for now, the Goertzens may expand into growing other vegetables hydroponically in the future. They still have their smaller greenhouse if and when they decide to expand. "Most of the time there's someone here and there is no need to call ahead," Cam said. If a group would like a tour of the greenhouse or for more information, he can be reached at 715-296-5015. A group from First United Methodist Church of Barron's Monona Cheney Circle, who had a recent tour, shared these comments: "It was an awesome place," said Cheryl Borgen. "They had the best tomatoes I have ever eaten-so much flavor, no center core, no blemishes and so meaty, not just juice. Mr. Goertzen explained the planting and growing procedure so well." "It was so interesting to see how they are grown," said Sue Wagenbach. "I definitely would go back and buy their tomatoes." "It is so conveniently located and easy to find off Hwy. 8," said Vicki Byerly. "They are so much better tasting than store tomatoes." "We have been back there a few times since our tour," said Caryl Olson. "We love the taste." "I found the growing procedure so interesting, and he was so kind to show up how they go through the whole process," said Deanna Keppen. Rosemary Tireman said the hydroponic tomatoes are "the closest to garden tomatoes you can find. The cucumbers are wonderful too." Cam summed up the green house business, noting "I've learned a lot about tomatoes and a lot about people."