When the Mickelsen family of Rupert decided to diversify its 1,100-acre beet, grain and bean farm, growing hydroponic and pesticide-free tomatoes seemed like the “natural” choice.
“We thought it would be a good idea not to have all our eggs in one basket,” says Ramie Mickelsen who with her husband Matt, mother-in-law Dixie Smith and the Mickelsens’ five children started the business four years ago.
“Everybody likes tomatoes. My husband and mother-in-law eat them like apples,” Ramie says.
But the Mickelsen’s tomatoes aren’t your garden-variety type. The family grows tomatoes hydroponically, which means the plants are grown in liquid nutrient solutions inside a greenhouse rather than in soil. The Mickelsen’s two-bay greenhouse produces around 1,400 tomatoes each year. Each plant produces about 400 pounds of the veggie annually. Without pesticides and living in a clean and carefully controlled greenhouse, the plants optimally grow high-quality produce.
Prior to starting the hydroponic tomato business, Ramie brushed up on all things tomato.
“I went to some classes and learned about it. The rest has just been baptism by fire, trial and error,” she says.
After a difficult first year, the family “lightened up” after realizing that they, and their tomatoes, didn’t have to be perfect.
While the tomatoes do well in the greenhouse, they do need extra care. The Mickelsens act as Mother Nature, ensuring the plants get all the nutrients they would normally get outside.
“They don’t have the soil to suck in the nutrients. They require more fertilizer. We give it all to them through the water,” Ramie says.
Tomatoes also require pollination; Mickelsen uses a pollinator device on the vegetables.
Once the plants start to bloom, the Mickelsens purchase insects specifically bred to work on hydroponic tomatoes. These bees come without stingers.
“The bees do bite, but if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. They’ll fly over you and go to the next plant,” Ramie says.
When the Mickelsens first began their hydroponic adventure, Ramie noticed some end rot on the leaves. Someone told her that the plants needed a breeze to move the leaves around.
“I thought, there’s 1,470 plants out there.” Mickelsen recalls. “They told me, ‘Get a fan.’”
She bought two. The fans produce wind which gently ruffles the tomatoes’ leaves, which in turn takes nutrients to the plants.
The Mickelsens plant the tomatoes in January; by the first of March, the vegetables are transferred to the greenhouse. It takes about a week for the vegetables to adjust. Hydroponic tomatoes need to be pampered and can be very temperamental.
“They have to be babied,” Ramie says.
The Mickelsens start harvesting tomatoes in the spring, but it isn’t uncommon for their vegetables to grow through December. Homestead Hydroponics are available in several local grocery stores and Farmers Markets.
For the Mickelsen family, which includes children Colton, Dalton, Garrett, Tess and Morgan, farming is a way of life. The family farm has been in operation for 50 years. Their hydroponic experiment started in 2004, and may eventually expand to include lettuce, green peppers and cucumbers. But those vegetables are on hold for now.
“Until this takes off, we’re just going to work on tomatoes,” Ramie says.
They’re hydroponic and pesticide free, but mostly these tomatoes just taste great.
Check your local grocery store for Homestead Hydroponics tomatoes. They are also available at the Mickelsen’s greenhouse, located on Minidoka Hwy 24 at 725 North.
Call (208) 531-4025, or e-mail email@example.com