- 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.”

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