North Carolina’s Tom Elmore had a very precise plan to start his second career as a farmer in western North Carolina, but he didn’t count on late blight taking out his tomato crop on a regular basis or correcting the problem by grafting all his greenhouse tomato plants.

Elmore has a graduate degree in environmental engineering and worked a long and prosperous career with a regional council and other government agencies doing soil and water quality work.

In the mid-1980s Elmore and his wife, Karen, began planning second careers, he as a farmer and she was an attorney. They were living in the High Country of Colorado at the time and recognized early on they would need a longer growing season to accomplish their goals in farming.

After a nationwide search, they settled on western North Carolina, and established Thatchmore Farm, near Leicester, just a few miles from Ashville, N.C. and a stone’s throw from major Interstate highways that criss-cross the Great Smoky Mountains.

They now grow 30 or so vegetable and fruit crops annually, but tomatoes are their biggest crop.

After starting out selling to wholesale marketers, they expanded the number of crops they grow and have targeted Tailgate Markets, which predominantly want a small quantity of products, but a wide range of choices.

The Tailgate Market is different from Farmers Markets in that growers sell directly to consumers who buy vegetables from vendors along the I-40 and I-26 corridors in western North Carolina. “We like it because we can sell virtually everything we grow, and we can sell our products for retail prices,” Elmore says.

Devastating disease

Early on in their farming experience, Karen and Tom learned about the devastating effect late blight can have on a small farming operation that features outdoor grown organic tomatoes as a principal crop.

This is the same disease organism that caused the Potato Famine in Ireland and other European countries at the turn of the 20th Century and forced many farmers from that part of the world to come to America.

Elmore grew up in a family of conservationists and his training and first career were geared toward conservation production of crops. So, choosing to be organic farmers just came natural, he says.

“I don’t have anything whatsoever against farmers who grow crops in the conventional way, but growing organic has had some big advantages for us,” Elmore explains.

Late blight is one of the big disadvantages in trying to grow tomatoes outside with organic methods. To combat that problem, Elmore moved his tomato production inside to an environmentally controlled greenhouse and began grafting tomatoes for planting in the greenhouse.

Grafting is a hot topic in the vegetable world today, but when Elmore started doing it, now going on 6 years ago, it was a novel, if not revolutionary, way to grow tomatoes.

“I attended a North Carolina Greenhouse Growers Association meeting, and one of the speakers talked about grafting tomatoes. It didn’t seem that difficult, so I made the decision to plant half my greenhouse without grafts and the other house with grafted plants,” Elmore says.

In one bed containing both types, the grafted tomatoes did really well, and dwarfed the conventional plants, the North Carolina grower adds.

The next year he grafted all his greenhouse tomatoes, produced a big crop, and has spent the past few years perfecting the art and the science of grafting plants.

Basically, it’s simple, he says. You find a rootstock that resists soil diseases and then find a scion, or top part of the plant, that has the marketing qualities you want in a tomato and splice them together.

In reality, it’s significantly more detailed, though the North Carolina grower says it takes only a few hours to actually graft the plants he needs for his greenhouse.

The first step, he says, is to get the rootstock plants and scion plants seeded so they are similar in size at transplant time. The two plants are then cut at about 45 degree angles, and the scion is attached with a clamp to the rootstock.

“After the surgery, it takes the plant 7-10 days to recover. Then, it can be planted just like any other plant. The recovery requires high humidity to replace water lost in the procedure and low light to prevent the plant from losing moisture in the photosynthesis process,” Elmore explains.

Realistically, there is some crossover between the scion and rootstock, because the scion gets increased vigor from the rootstock, but basically above the graft you get characteristics of the scion and below the graft you get the characteristics of the rootstock, he adds

Has boosted greenhouse production

Since he’s been grafting tomatoes, the North Carolina grower says grafting has likely increased his greenhouse production by 30-35 percent annually. “I don’t have any scientific data to back those numbers up, but based on production we used to get prior to grafting transplants, I think it’s fairly accurate, Elmore says.

He typically manages his greenhouse tomatoes, and via a process he calls the Dutch single stem system, can harvest well into November in most years. Again, in most years, he says he harvests about 20-40 pounds of tomatoes per rootstock.

(For another look at tomato grafting and how it can impact the crop, click here).

“In Europe, growers use the system to grow year-around, but we feel like we get some benefit from letting the soil rest for a couple of months. We begin sowing our rootstock and scion plants in November, and begin transplanting new plants in February, he says.

As the tomato plants grow in the greenhouse, Elmore uses a European-inspired ‘lean and lower” system in which the plants are lowered and lifted by a trellis string. The primary reason is to keep the 20-foot long (by the end of the harvest season) vines producing tomatoes no higher than six feet or so above the ground.

Though tomatoes are a principal crop at Thatchmore Farms, they are not the only ones that benefit from an array of environmental friendly production systems. For example, a 16 panel solar system provides about 25 percent of the energy needed to power the farm and the Elmore residence, located on the farm.

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