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Organic farm finding success with 'Wyomatoes'

Jul 21, 2013 - By Ashley Detrick For the Associated Press

BIG PINEY (AP) -- Stewart Doty picked his first ripe tomato this year in April.

A big, fresh, organic tomato from a Wyoming garden is unheard of that early. But Doty, who lives and farms in Big Piney, has been prevailing at having those red, ripe, juicy bundles of joy available before anyone else since 1989.

He specializes in tomatoes with taste.

More than 20 years ago, Doty, a very spiritual man, said that God encouraged him to go into the tomato business. So he began Wyomatoes with very little money and a small, one-level greenhouse that he built behind his mobile home in Big Piney.

It proved to be the correct decision when, before long, an investor visited his greenhouse and offered him several thousand dollars to add on to his greenhouse and build an additional one.

Today, he has two huge greenhouses, each with three different levels, totaling more than 36,000 square feet of growing space.

The greenhouses are so expertly managed that you would never guess that there are more than 3,500 tomato plants all vining up string dropped almost 10 feet from the ceiling above.

The flavor comes from the microbes in the soil. The microbes, which he added to the soil about five years ago, break down the nutrients in the soil so they are available for the plants to absorb.

He starts planting the rows and rows upon level after level of Big Dena tomato plants in October. They usually start producing in April and continue through the end of the year.

"It takes a lot of oil to heat in Wyoming winters," said Doty, who runs a broiler to keep the greenhouses between 63 degrees and 78 degrees from October to January.

He uses well water to feed hundreds, if not thousands, of drip lines into the greenhouses that are all on a solar controlled watering system.

And with all the work and systems that he's basically built himself, he grows about 80,000 pounds of tomatoes a year. It's enough to be one of the largest organic greenhouses in the country, he said.

Plus, scattered in between the rows and rows of tomatoes are several dozen basil and cucumber plants. There are even a handful of banana trees.

Unfortunately, a majority of his tomatoes go to Utah, about 200 miles away. He supplies more than 15 restaurants and supermarkets, including Whole Foods, in the Salt Lake area with tomatoes. At the Saturday farmer's market, alone, he sells about 1,000 pounds at $5 per pound. Plus, this year he's added at least one other farmer's market in the Salt Lake valley.

Some of the tomatoes also go to Jackson (only a 90-mile drive) where they are sold at the farmer's markets and a few health food stores.

"We'd like to (sell in Wyoming), but we need someone who will buy enough of them," Doty said. "You can't stop the truck for one box of tomatoes."

One of the biggest challenges producers have in Wyoming is marketing, said Donn Randall, the crop and forage program manager with the Wyoming Business Council.

Wyoming is obviously a huge state with lots of empty space in between places.

There are only a few who are growing and selling tomatoes on a larger scale in Wyoming, Randall said. And Jackson Hole is working on building Vertical Harvest, a year-round, three story, 13,500-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse in the heart of town to keep up with the demand that residents have for fresh, local food.

"I've gotta give (Doty) credit. He's in an area that can produce and what's he's doing makes a lot of sense," Randall said.

For Doty and his handful of employees, a trip to Riverton (only 160 miles away) would cost nearly half the amount of the worth of 20 boxes of tomatoes.

Although, he said that if there was someone willing to take a bunch of tomatoes to Riverton, or any other Wyoming town, there might be a way to make it happen.

But so far, there hasn't been much demand in the state.

The Salt Lake farmer's market has been a draw for Doty for the past four years because of its size and timing. The Salt Lake farmer's market always begins in the first weekend in June, weeks before Jackson's market, which starts after the Fourth of July.

When you have your first tomato picked in April, June or July seems a long way off.

But the demand could change. More and more restaurants are popping up around the state, even in Gillette, that promote seasonal and local ingredients.

The trend of healthy eating, knowing where your food came from and supporting local growers has a great impact on Wyoming.

He said there are 48 farmers markets in the state, which is exponentially more than there were five years ago.

"The problem," he said, "is that if they open at 8 a.m., you have to be there at 7:30 a.m., standing in line."

Most of the vendors at these local farmer's markets are home gardeners with a decent sized bac

kyard or maybe even a little bit of land. But even then, there's much more demand than they can produce from their fruit or vegetable patch. Many grow their produce in hoop houses, which are smaller and typically heated with solar or thermal energy.

"We have a great resource in Wyoming: solar energy," Randall said. "The biggest problem is finding a structure to withstand the wind."

Which makes Wyomatoes even more unique.

According to Doty, he is one of the biggest organic greenhouses in the country. Doty has had few problems with Wyoming's unpredictable weather. Only once with a ton of snow did the roof of the greenhouse fall in.

But it didn't deter him. He left that winter and spent time in Napa Valley, where he sold fruit out of his truck, learning marketing along the way.

When he came back, he was eager to build bigger and better. And he did.

"It's one thing to buy a fresh tomato and something completely different to buy one that was green three months ago and forced to ripen on a truck," Randall said.

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