- Associated Press - Saturday, February 15, 2014

BROADWAY, N.C. (AP) - Outside, the temperature dipped to near zero, and snow locked everything in a chilling blanket of white.

Inside, in a hazy world of green, the only activity was the faint buzzing of bees drifting on 62-degree breezes and the occasional hum of fans.

Welcome to the winter wonderland of Ryan Patterson, a plastic-coated world where tomatoes flourish on 20-foot vines and winter’s chill is vanquished by a combination of technology and crushed sweet potato boxes.

It’s the only commercial tomato greenhouse in the Cape Fear region. And unlike other greenhouses in the state, Patterson’s tomatoes are heated by a unique portable boiler - one that pulls double duty in the summer.

“We had the boiler installed on a flat-bed trailer,” said Patterson’s father, Phil. “In the summer, we disconnect the boiler and drive it down to cure our tobacco barns a couple miles down the road.”

It was that operation that led the Pattersons to create their innovative solution for growing tomatoes through the dead of winter. The family farm had dabbled in hothouse vegetables since 1998, using natural gas as heat.

“I don’t need to tell you, that got expensive fast,” Ryan Patterson said. “The cost of gas went up, and every time it did, it took more of the profits.”

In the summer, like most farmers in the Carolinas, Patterson’s tobacco curing operation also relied on gas.

“That’s where this whole idea started,” Ryan Patterson said. “We had heard of an operation that burned recycled wood to heat the barns. It was efficient and a lot less expensive.

“Then, a few years ago, a light bulb went off. We realized that if we could use that same source here, both for the tobacco and the greenhouse, we’d really have something.”

What the Pattersons now have, three years later, is a small slice of green in the dead of a Harnett County winter just off U.S. 421. A chilling blast of cold gives way to immediate spring. It’s a bit disorienting, and the Pattersons smile as visitors take a minute to adjust.

“I have to clean my glasses every time I come in here,” Phil Patterson said.

The first thing to hit your senses, after they have warmed up, is the unreal sense of standing among rich, verdant vines dotted with tomatoes. A few seconds later, if the fans that keep 62-degree air circulating are stilled, you hear a faint buzzing.

There are bees here. Bumblebees, to be specific.

“They are specially raised for greenhouses,” Ryan Patterson said. “When we first tried with regular bees, they kept pounding themselves against the plastic coating. These guys just do what bees are supposed to do.”

Ryan, now president of the North Carolina Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association, admits that growing tomatoes in winter has been a learning experience. The first attempts with regular tomatoes were disastrous. A lack of sunlight, both because of the plastic sheeting and because daylight is so much shorter in winter, stunted those plants.

Now, the family plants a hybrid designed specifically for winter light. Each seed costs about 50 cents - an exorbitant amount to regular summer gardeners, but well worth the investment for the Pattersons. After being planted in a mulch of shredded coconut and fed through drip irrigation, each surviving plant will produce 25 pounds of tomatoes.

“It’s interesting, but if you plant these seeds outdoors with regular tomatoes, they won’t produce,” he said. “It’s all about the daylight hours. They’ll grow but won’t flower.”

The first tomatoes will be ready for picking some time in mid-February. As the vines continue to thrive, a series of wires overhead help support them.

In the 110 or so days it takes for them to produce, the vines can easily grow to verdant anacondas longer than 20 feet.

“When we’re done, we might be pulling vines 30 feet long out of here,” Ryan Patterson said. “It’s amazing how big they can grow.”

Along one edge, a stand of eggplant enjoy the winter as well. But they are not for consumption. These plants are for pest control.

“There’s a real threat from greenhouse whitefly,” Ryan Patterson said. “I know it sounds strange in winter, but whiteflies are a real problem. Fortunately, they like eggplant more than tomatoes.

“So, we treat the eggplant bushes to take care of them. That allows us to be pesticide free with the tomatoes.”

A series of pipes connect the greenhouse to its heat source, the flatbed boiler. Capable of producing 3.5 million BTUs of energy, it purrs along even in the most frigid weather. In time, it can help protect another greenhouse of young tobacco plants nearby as they grow into the spring.

“The unit was built to heat 19 tobacco barns up to about 200 degrees,” Phil Patterson said. “It won’t break a sweat keeping this place warm.”

Sensors and electronic connectors allow the machine to feed itself as needed. The colder the weather, the more it eats. Still, heating that once required 375 gallons of LP gas can now be done for about $60 worth of crunched-up pallets and produce boxes.

“We get the fuel from a guy who crushes up discarded wood into pellets,” Ryan Patterson said. “If it wasn’t for him, that would all be going into the landfill somewhere.

“Now, it’s being recycled as fuel for heat.”

And for keeping a green dream world warm in the dead of winter.


Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com



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