When a row crop farmer gets into an enterprise that involves selling food products directly to the consumer, he has to ask how compatible these efforts are really going to be.

That is certainly the question Ryan Patterson and his father Phil of Broadway, N.C., had to answer a few years ago when they considered investing in greenhouses for tomato production on their tobacco/grain farm.

But now, 12 years later, the experiment has proved to have been a success.

“We have been very happy with greenhouse tomatoes,” Ryan Patterson says. “I don’t think it will ever replace tobacco, but it sure helps. For a smaller farmer who can give it the attention it needs, it can be a good choice.”

Tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses provide several benefits to a general farming operation. Perhaps the obvious one is improved cash flow — a greenhouse can generate product in times of cold weather when there isn’t much cash flow from traditional crops.

(For an informative article on how another North Carolina grower is using high tunnel structures to produce berries, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/news_archive/blueberry-production-0828/index.html.)

In 2009, the Pattersons had two tomato greenhouses covering 7,000 square feet and producing 1,200 plants per year. For 2010, they converted one of those greenhouses to produce tobacco transplants, and they have bought another greenhouse for tomatoes.

It is a ‘gutter connect’ greenhouse, essentially three separate bays joined together by two common walls. This arrangement gives more efficient use of heat. The total dimension is 66 feet x 128 feet.

Tobacco continues to be the main cash crop on the Patterson farm. “We had 120 acres in 2009, along with 180 acres of wheat, 75 acres of corn and 450 acres of soybeans,” Patterson says. “We have expanded in tomatoes and tobacco since the buyout.”

They sell their tobacco via contract, but marketing their tomatoes is a more complex process. An area cooperative for fruits and vegetables buys directly from the Pattersons and distributes their tomatoes to restaurants and high end grocery stores. “We sell about half of our tomatoes to the cooperative or directly to grocery stores. The rest we sell at a stand in Phil’s front yard.”

Some of the keys to producing tomatoes efficiently in a greenhouse, says Patterson:

• Pay attention to nutrients and the pH level. “We take tissue samples regularly and give it exactly what the crop needs.” Patterson says.

• Manage the temperatures.

• Don’t let the plant get too vegetative or regenerative.

Sunlight is a big factor but you can’t do much about it. “Our fall crop didn’t get much sunlight in December, and it had an effect,” he says.

Greenhouse tomato production is a very management-intensive enterprise, says Don Nicholson, regional agronomist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “It helps that the Pattersons are a father-son team: One can always be available to look after operations.

“It would be good for any greenhouse tomato operation to have more than one manager. But they need to be like-minded. You have to do some things every day of the week and some of them multiple times a day. You want them always to be done the same way.”

The biggest difference between the row crops the Pattersons grow and greenhouse tomatoes is marketing, says Nicholson.

“There is always the roadside stand,” he says. “For some farmers, strawberries and greenhouse tomatoes have worked out really well.

“They can fit in well at farmers markets also, since they are an off-season product at a time when there is not a lot to sell.

“And if you can develop a good reputation, small local groceries can be a good market,” he says. “The Pattersons definitely have a reputation for growing good tomatoes.”

Can you grow different crops all together in the same greenhouse? Or will this create an unmanageable problem?

“It is best not to grow multiple types of crops in the same greenhouse,” says Rick Snyder, Mississippi Extension specialist for greenhouse and field vegetable crops. “Each has its own optimum environment — temperature, light, humidity and other factors — along with fertilizer and water requirements.”

You could, however, grow a main crop like tomatoes and experiment with a few plants of something else, he says. But the system should be optimized for the main crop.

“If you decide to grow a larger scale of more than one kind of vegetable, it is best to grow each in a separate greenhouse which will be set up for the required conditions for that crop.”

Be sure there is a market for that second or third crop. Tomatoes are the easiest to sell. Other vegetables, like cucumbers and lettuce, will sell well in some areas, but not in others.

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com