Jul 3, 2018Best in the Midwest: Centennial farm excels in open-field tomato growing
The family name is Rice, and on the surface, they seem unlikely heroes for tomato growers.
The Rice family has farmed near Wanatah, Indiana for more than a century and across six generations. “Tomatoes are in some ways relatively new for the family,” said Scott Rice, the clan’s fourth-generation grower. The first tomato crop came in 1983.
Today the family farm has roughly 2,400 acres under cultivation, and tomato plantings make up less than 10 percent of the farm’s total area – most of that area is planted with seed corn for Remington, commercial corn and soybeans.
But it was their excellence in open-field tomato growing that was recently recognized by their processor, Red Gold. Rice Farms Tomatoes was selected as the Red Gold Tomato Grower of the Year by Red Gold from its 48 growers and seven master growers during 2017.
The Rice family first started in the tomato business growing for Heinz. They began supplying Red Gold in 1987. Scott Rice today owns the farm with his sons James and David as partners.
Red Gold cans whole peeled tomatoes in addition to other processed products such as purees, salsas, ketchups and diced tomatoes. Growers sign one-year contracts each spring, and in March, Rice signed the farm’s 32nd contract with Red Gold.
“It’s a long-term relationship,” he said.
How it’s done
The fields are both planted and harvested by GPS, which Scott Rice said makes planting easier and the rows straighter. The farm begins transplanting tomato plants about May 5 each year and continues planting tomatoes for three or four days a week for six weeks, finishing in the middle of June.
Tomato harvesting typically begins in mid-August.
“The goal is providing tomatoes every day for 50-55 days,” Scott Rice said.
Although tomatoes have been mechanically harvested for decades, he said the harvester is one of the best examples of how ag technology has advanced in the last 30 years.
A modern mechanical harvester allows 30-40 tons of tomatoes to be harvested per hour, and a day’s work is usually done after six hours.
“Our labor needs have dropped down to very, very minimal,” Scott Rice said. The company still uses some contractual labor at peak periods of planting and harvest. His son, David, has responsibilities elsewhere on the farm but is a tomato man during harvest.
“I transition wholly into tomatoes during harvest time,” David said. “We all kind of help out in different facets of the business.”
Pulled by a tractor, the device has rotating disks at its head that pull up the whole plants. Tomatoes are pulled off the vine by fiberglass brushes. Optic sensors – “eyes” – distinguish between red and green tomatoes. The machine then kicks the green tomatoes back out into the field, Scott Rice said.
Red Gold has its growers plant a number of different varieties each year, Scott Rice said. The tomatoes themselves are Roma-like, small, firm and elliptical in shape – they are much firmer and with a higher solids content than a market tomato.
Rice Farms Tomatoes’ 2017 production would account for over 16 million cans of Red Gold whole, diced, stewed and specialty tomato products, according to Red Gold.
Among growers, the competition is to produce tomatoes of high enough quality to be peeled and canned – whole, stewed or diced. For the growers, “peeler” tomatoes are preferable to “product” tomatoes bound for ketchup and sauces – a load of peeler tomatoes pays 20 percent more than a product load.
Although the contracts are yearly, Scott Rice is loyal to Red Gold. The brand has purchased his tomatoes for 31 years and he’s got a contract for the farm’s 32nd crop.
“We love the Red Gold company,” he said. “They have been good for growers. They’re great for Midwestern agriculture.”
The company remains based in Orestes, Indiana, while other processors have moved to other regions.
Four generations of the Reichart family have run Red Gold since 1942, when the company began producing tomato products for the soldiers overseas. The company now claims to be the largest privately-owned tomato processor in the nation with three state-of-the-art facilities in Elwood, Geneva and Orestes, Indiana. Red Gold also boasts a million-square-foot distribution center in Orestes and operates a wholly-owned subsidiary, RG Transport trucking fleet, in Elwood.
“They’re a wonderful family to work for,” said James Rice. “It’s a true Midwest success story.”
Scott Rice said the company maintains a cooperative, rather than adversarial, attitude toward its growers.
“They’re down to earth,” Scott Rice said. “They’re not simply in the business of buying the cheapest tomato they can buy.”
– Stephen Kloosterman, VGN Assistant Editor