ND tomato business climbs into restaurant, retail market success
Meadowlark Garden of Park River, N.D., is a well-oiled business, sending tomatoes onto the plates of high-end restaurants and into grocery stores across eastern North Dakota.
PARK RIVER, N.D. — Inside a greenhouse in northeastern North Dakota, tomato plants stretch from the floor up, and up, and up, 9 or more feet toward the roof, where they are secured with garden twine. Each plant is dotted with tomatoes in various states of ripening. The vines will continue to grow and produce fruit until nearly the end of 2020.
While gardeners across the Upper Midwest may be just starting to see little yellow flowers develop on their tomato vines, Dennis Loewen already has been producing tomatoes for months in his 4,300-square-foot Meadowlark Garden greenhouse. And the operation is far from a hobby; Meadowlark Garden is a well-oiled business, sending tomatoes onto the plates of high-end restaurants and into grocery stores across eastern North Dakota.
North Dakota isn’t exactly known for its vegetable production, beyond more hardy crops like potatoes and onions. Shoppers expect the tomatoes in grocery stores likely came from across the country, or even out of the country.
But 12 years ago, Dennis and his wife, Vera, planted their roots in the produce business with the help of a friend in Canada’s tomato business. And the path that got them there is almost as long as the vines inside Meadowlark Garden.
Dennis and Vera come from Mennonite communities in Georgia and Canada, respectively. But when Dennis was a child, his father learned of inexpensive farmland in Brazil. The family moved there and bought “virgin land” in the plains south of the Amazon rainforest.
“That land had never been tilled since the days of Adam and Eve,” Dennis says.
They tried dryland rice but found that the climate was too dry for that. So they moved into corn and soybeans when those were still burgeoning markets for the country that now is a major player in both crops on a national scale.
Dennis, for the most part, finished up school in Georgia when he was 13. He attended classes in Brazil just long enough to learn Portuguese. Other than that, he says, he attended the “school of tough knocks.”
Dennis explains that there’s “quite a group of Mennonnite people” who moved to Brazil, and Vera traveled there to visit an uncle. There she met Dennis, and they spent the first seven years of their married life in Brazil. Both still have family in the country, including a daughter who teaches there. Dennis’s brothers still farm part of the land the family bought when they came from Georgia.
Dennis loved the country and the culture there. He recalls that stopping to ask for directions often involves being invited into someone’s home to have a cup of the strong coffee characteristic of the area.
But Vera, Dennis explains, had a hankering to return north, and so they moved to North Dakota.
“I love Brazil. I love the Brazilian culture. I love those friendly people,” he says. “But there’s just something about the USA and the freedom.”
Dennis originally worked for farmers in the area. But about 12 years ago, Vera’s cousin Murray in Canada told them he was going to expand his greenhouse business and offered to sell them his old setup to start a tomato business.
“We were wanting a business on our own little farm here,” he says.
‘Trial and error’
The Loewens knew nothing about tomatoes or greenhouses. But they learned, Dennis says, through “trial and error and my wife’s cousin.” At Murray’s suggestion, Dennis talked to restaurants and grocery stores and found willing customers for his produce.
He’s also learned what works and what doesn’t in growing tomatoes, and he enjoys the job.
“I enjoy working with plants. It’s intriguing. It’s challenging to know all the nutrients a plant needs,” he says as he explains the plants’ dual needs to grow and to set fruit and how a tomato farmer must learn when to prune so that the plant can keep its priorities in place.
The tomato plants that will end up at Meadowlark Garden are seeded around the first of the year. Six weeks later, in mid-February, they make it to Meadowlark Garden, where they grow and grow and grow.
The indeterminate plants begin to set fruit toward the end of April, and things really pick up in May. The Loewens and their employees pick tomatoes and pack boxes on Mondays and Thursdays, and Dennis delivers on Tuesdays and Fridays. His route takes him to Langdon, Cavalier, Park River, Grafton, Larimore and Grand Forks, all in northeastern North Dakota, and then down to Fargo.
Until the beginning of December, the tomatoes are ripened on the vine.
“When you have a vine-ripened tomato it’s picked today and you can have it for lunch. That’s the quality. I have no other secrets,” Dennis says.
As December begins, any good-sized tomatoes are picked, regardless of stage of ripening, and allowed to ripen off the vine. That gives Meadowlark Garden tomatoes to sell through about Christmas.
Meadowlark Garden in recent years also expanded into microgreens, growing a variety of shoots like basil, radish, kale, arugula, mizune, fennel, cress, sweet peas and sweet corn. Those products largely go to restaurants, which means Meadowlark Garden felt a bit of a hit while restaurants were limited to pick up and deliver during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the demand for tomatoes never lessened.
“Once the tomatoes started coming, they all wanted tomatoes,” he says. “We haven’t felt it in the tomato production.”
More recently, Loewen started dealing in Wisconsin cheese products packaged by a friend. It gives him another product to offer to his customers.
For now, the Loewens are happy in their work, which Dennis calls a “good retirement job” because it requires no heavy work, though it does mean some climbing to the tips of the tomato plants stretched to the roof. He has a son living nearby who he’d like to see get into the business. But he has no plans to get out himself.