Graddy's all-natural fresh salsa and tomatoes


Fresh Off the Vine

John & Kay GradovilleThere was a time not too long ago when fresh tomatoes were a summer-only treat. Sure, there were artificially ripened imports, but the price was high and the tomatoes were short on flavor.

Fortunately times have changed. Nowadays you can savor great-tasting, pesticide-free tomatoes at your local Hy-Vee whenever you want. Several growers and suppliers in the area have developed hydroponic greenhouse operations for raising tomatoes. With hydroponics, crops are grown in water instead of soil. This allows tomatoes to be sold in the Hy-Vee produce department from April through December.

One such operation is Graddy's in Carroll, Iowa. John and Kay Gradoville, above, got into the business and made their first tomato shipment to Hy-Vee in 1999. "We both had the gardening bug and found the hydroponic tomatoes where we lived in Pennsylvania to be very tasty," says Kay. "So when an opportunity came up to purchase a greenhouse, we returned to our hometown of Carroll and started growing a handful of varieties."

The couple started with a small operation that has grown steadily. They now have more than an acre of greenhouse space, allowing them to grow about 9,000 plants.

Hydroponics is a fairly complicated process of growing tomatoes in a soilless, controlled
environment. At Graddy's, plants are brought into the greenhouses about mid-December so the first tomatoes can be harvested around mid-March.

When their season begins, new plants are set into growing cubes or bags. TomatoesFertilizer, water and nutrients are sent directly to the roots through a carefully controlled irrigation system. This allows the plants to grow and mature 30 to 50 percent faster than soil plants. It also ensures a higher yield and better quality tomatoes. Temperature, light and humidity are precisely controlled in the greenhouses during the growing process, and bees are shipped in to help with pollination.

Like other tomato growers, the Gradovilles know that delivering fresh, flavorful tomatoes to Hy-Vee is essential. "We allow the sun to ripen the tomatoes on the vine as long as we can so flavors develop naturally. Once tomatoes are picked, we have them delivered to the stores within a day or two," says Kay.

The market for hydroponic tomatoes continues to grow as more consumers recognize the rewards of buying consistent, high-quality tomatoes, even if it's in mid-December. When choosing tomatoes, the Gradovilles suggest going for ones that are heavy for their size and not overly soft. The skin of the tomato should not wrinkle when you run your thumb on it with slight pressure. You can also tell the freshness by the intense tomato aroma, especially at the stem end.