Albion’s Intergrow a place for tomatoes to thrive in middle of winter
MADE IN ROCHESTER
Jan 11, 2009
Diana Louise Carter
With all the hoopla about eating local foods, perhaps you've wondered just how far Wegmans has to go to get those vine-ripened tomatoes it sells year-round. The answer is just a few miles west of Rochester - to the greenhouses of Intergrow near Albion, Orleans County.
This week at Intergrow's 30 acres of greenhouses, three seasons were evident. Outside was frigid snow as far as the eye could see. Indoors, the first half of the greenhouse looked like early fall, with fully ripe tomatoes hanging on withering plants. In the second half of the greenhouse, the plants looked more like they do late July, with verdant greenery and fully formed green tomatoes clinging to the vines. Bumblebees - two hives per acre - buzzed around the plants looking for new blossoms to pollinate.
In this ecosystem under glass, Intergrow produces some 50 million pounds of tomatoes a year, generating $15 million in annual revenue. About 20 percent of the crop goes to Wegmans stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The rest is sold from Chicago to Boston, and from Lake Ontario to Washington, D.C.
"We harvest today and they'll get it tonight and it'll probably be in the store tomorrow," said Intergrow owner and President Dirk Biemans.
Wegmans' Eben Kennedy, a category merchant for produce, said: "Most (local) products are seasonal and then we move south. ... It's a great advantage to us to have Intergrow less than 40 minutes away." Before Intergrow arrived, Wegmans was buying tomatoes on the vine from the Netherlands.
Biemans, a native of the Netherlands, came to the United States in 1991 to work for another greenhouse grower in Pennsylvania. In 1998, he built his own greenhouse in Portageville, Allegany County. It was there that he started supplying Wegmans. "They started to take so much product that we decided to expand our business," Biemans said.
The Southern Tier's hilly terrain prevented expansion there. In 2003, Biemans found the flat land he was looking for just north of the hamlet of Childs in Orleans County. Currently Intergrow raises only one variety of tomato, Tricia, which produces clusters of fruit.
"We harvest them fully red. You get a much better flavor," Biemans said.
Workers (about 45 in the winter and twice as many in the summer) tend each of the thousands of plants weekly, training growing vines onto vertical strings, and pruning clusters to five tomatoes each. The older plants' final harvest is this week, Biemans said. Each plant can grow for about 52 weeks, he said, but production dwindles as it ages. He expected the new crop to yield its first tomatoes in about three weeks. In the meantime, workers will replant the first section of the greenhouse. And then it will be spring again in the dead of winter.
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