Tomato season has come early to the Kansas City area and I was honored to be one of the first to to experience some of the local tomatoes.
This past January, I received an email from Eric Tschanz, executive director of Powell Gardens, just east of Kansas City. He knew I was a tomato aficionado and that I specialize in supporting local farmers and their tomatoes for our Mozzarella Theater Tableside Cheese Program at my family’s restaurant.
Eric asked if I would like to carry the tomatoes and immediately, I called him within five minutes of receiving this email. I don’t have to tell you what my answer was to him other than that I wanted the first delivery. I guess I’m kind of selfish when it comes to local tomatoes.
This year, Powell Garden farmers planted 4,200 plants in the ground. The tomatoes are being grown organically and the botanic garden plans to get production certified organic, he said. They are grown in tunnels on the property
Powell Gardens went into tomato production to diversify its revenue stream and to build upon the reputation that Powell Gardens has built up over its 26 years of existence, Tschanz said.
“The goal is to put our brand on a tomatoes so folks can take a part of Powell Gardens home with them,” Tschanz said.
Organic compost was tilled into the soil to prepare it for the crop. Drip irrigation and plastic mulch also are being used.
I was fortunate enough to sit with Tschanz when he made the first delivery to my restaurant recently. I had a few questions for him and I am sharing with you, the Chow Town readers.
I will tell you one thing, the tomatoes hand delivered by Tschanz were absolutely beautiful and my customers were so happy to get a taste of the early local crop. Actually, we had rave reviews and my nephew, Jasper III, and I really enjoyed talking to customers about Powell Gardens and their tunnel tomatoes.
Mirabile: What are tunnel tomatoes?
Tschanz: This means the tomatoes are grown in a high tunnel, which are large, unheated greenhouse covered with poly — a type of greenhouse plastic. Our operation has seven tunnels, covering an entire acre in all. Each greenhouse is 31 feet wide and 200 feet long. With this set up we can plant early and be protected from frosts and cold. This year our first planting was in early March.
Mirabile: How much of Powell Gardens is being used for the tomato crop?
Tschanz: Almost a full acre of land is being cultivated for the tomatoes this year.
Mirabile: What varieties are you growing?
Tschanz: We started the season with Bush Early Girl and harvested our first tomatoes early June. We are growing three other slicers: Red Deuce, BHN 1021 and BHN 589. The BHN varieties were both developed specifically for high tunnels and are great producers with delicious flavor. We also are growing one tunnel each of the heirloom varieties Persimmon, Red Brandywine and Cherokee Purple.
Mirabile: Do you have a lot of restaurants involved in this program?
Tschanz: We’re working with at least seven restaurants on a regular basis and supplying Cosentino’s Price Chopper supermarkets in Lee’s Summit (Raintree and Woods Chapel stores) and Brookside. As the harvest increases, more stores may be added. We’re also working with KC Healthy Kids on plans to deliver tomatoes through the Farm-to-School program.
Mirabile: Did all the rain this season effect the crop?
Tschanz: No, thanks to the high tunnel set up the rain did not hurt us. We use drip irrigation as needed to control moisture levels.
Mirabile: What’s on the horizon at Powell Gardens? I can only imagine what you all will plant next.
Tschanz: We will be evaluating all of the varieties we’re growing this year, plus looking into ways to diversify into additional crops. Stay tuned.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.