Jul 17, 2014
Company makes mark growing tomatoes under cover

Small tomatoes are the fastest-growing part of the tomato market in the United States. NatureSweet Tomatoes is doing its part to meet the rising demand.

NatureSweet, based in San Antonio, owns and operates seven production facilities, with a total of 1,450 acres of greenhouses.

“We believe we are the largest greenhouse grower in North America,” said J. Michael Joergensen, marketing director for NatureSweet.

Five of the company’s facilities are located in and around Guadalajara, Mexico, and the other two are found in Arizona. These locations are selected because of their ideal climates for year-round production. Joergensen said that because the tomatoes are grown in a protected environment, each variety has superior taste, texture and freshness.

According to the company’s website, the greenhouses are covered with thick, opaque, insect-proof covering. This allows for natural sunlight and air circulation to occur, while protecting the plants from outside pests. Brightly colored sticky yellow sheets are placed throughout the greenhouse, acting like giant traps and providing for natural insect control.

Unlike other producers who pick their tomatoes green and then gas them with ethylene to induce ripening, NatureSweet Tomatoes are allowed to fully ripen on the vine. NatureSweet’s tomatoes are grown in a controlled environment, from the seeds to the soil to the water that is used.

“NatureSweet grows its tomatoes for taste, not yield, so each tomato is carefully raised and harvested for a product that outshines the competition,” he said. “Always vine-ripened, hand-picked and carefully packaged, NatureSweet tomatoes consistently deliver the best taste with year-round availability.”

More than 90 percent of NatureSweet’s product is sold through grocery and club stores in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

The company employs more than 6,000 full-time employees, who work year round, Joergensen said. He could not share any production statistics.

In the greenhouses, NatureSweet grows the company’s Cherubs, Glorys, Sunbursts and its newest selection – Cherriots. Joergensen said that at United Fresh’s annual convention in June, Cherriots gained much attention for their innovative packaging, small size and sweet flavor.

“This variety of specially grown micro-produce is packaged in a convenient pull-apart three-pack, making them the perfect on-the-go healthy snack that is meeting the increasing consumer demand,” Joergensen said. “Studies show that adults eat almost half of their food between meals. At the same time, consumers are demanding healthier options to take with them to the office, school or wherever they go. Cherriots are perfect for those who want to maintain a healthy diet when they’re away from home. It was great to see such a positive reaction to Cherriots and all of our products at United Fresh.”

Cherubs are salad tomatoes. Sunbursts are golden tomatoes that are “even sweeter and juicier than regular cherry tomatoes, making them ideal for snacking,” he said. Glorys are the “biggest” of the small tomatoes, ideal for cooking and ideal for a variety of dishes.

“Small tomatoes are the fastest-growing part of the tomato market in the country,” Joergensen said. “Once practically unheard of and hard to find, small tomatoes now make up 32 percent of the fresh tomato market and are climbing. More than 75 percent of tomato consumers say they prefer small tomatoes.

“At the pace the small tomato market is growing, produce retailers should be dedicating at least half of their shelf space to small tomatoes,” Joergensen said. “That’s why we’ve designed our packaging to not only be easy for the consumer to keep at home, but also easy for the retailer to display. Our products really pop in the produce aisle, and the packaging maintains freshness.”

Joergensen said the strategies for growing tomatoes in protected cover for superior taste, not high yields, are well thought out.

“The specifics are proprietary,” he said. “However, it’s an entirely different goal. Tomato plants, if left on their own, really only want to grow leaves. To get great-tasting tomatoes every day all year requires daily management of the plants. You really have to lead the plant where you want it to go, because you’re asking it to do the opposite of what it wants.

“Greenhouses have multiple advantages,” Joergensen said. “First, they protect the crop from the elements, from pests and rodents, from people. They allow for a much higher level of confidence in food safety. Second, they allow you to control the environment. You can get closer to ideal conditions for the plants by adjusting the light levels, temperature, even humidity. Third, they allow you to control and conserve the resources you use.

“For example, you can deliver exactly the number of drops of water per hour to the plants that they need, which is much more efficient than trying to water a field crop,” Joergensen said. “And finally, for our associates, greenhouses provide a piece of the business they can own and manage independently. Having a system of several hundred greenhouses allows many opportunities for growth within NatureSweet.”

Gary Pullano

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