Woman's hydroponic tomatoes on store shelves, in restaurants
By LICI BEVERIDGE
Feb. 25, 2018
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Beth Tucker has been around farming all her life. But adapting to today's technology has helped Tucker grow better products year-round.
Tucker, 55, of the Dixie community has been growing tomatoes hydroponically for about three years at Triple T Hydroponics. She started prep work on the farm a year earlier.
Hydroponic farming means the tomatoes are grown in water, not dirt.
Tucker takes care of her crops mostly through her computer and cellphone, getting alerts when something goes wrong, such as a pump or a fan going out.
She studied hydroponic methods and business models and did a lot of research for about a year before jumping in, first with one greenhouse and then adding two more.
"I was trying to find something to do here at home so I could take care of my babies," said Tucker, who is raising her two grandchildren, both with special needs.
The Brooklyn native hopes it is something she can teach her granddaughter to do and eventually help her take over the family business.
Her tomatoes may be found in local grocery stores and restaurants, including Corner Market, the Lil' Butcher Shoppe and Sully's restaurants in Hattiesburg and Petal.
David Lawson, co-owner of the Lil' Butcher Shoppe, said he loves Tucker's tomatoes. And he loves that they are locally grown.
"We're very fortunate that she started doing it," he said. "They're the closest thing to homegrown. They're beautiful — they're almost like looking at a picture when you see them.
"They pretty much sell themselves."
Lawson said some tomatoes he has bought from wholesale distributors don't measure up to Tucker's.
"You get tomatoes with no personality — red, round and in a box," he said. "Hers are juicy and flavorful — it makes you want to get a mayonnaise and tomato sandwich."
Stephen Hampton, co-owner of Sully's, said not only are Tucker's tomatoes flavorful, but she's an astute businesswoman.
"She follows through with everything she says she's going to do," Hampton said. "And she brings them to us daily."
Hampton is not usually a fan of greenhouse tomatoes because they tend to lack flavor and can get mealy. It's hard to tell Tucker's tomatoes are grown in a greenhouse, he said.
"A long as the quality's there, I'll buy it," Hampton said. "If they didn't (have quality), I wouldn't be using them.
"I'd much rather have some of Sully's money sitting in Dixie instead of New York City."
Hampton said making sure the tomatoes taste good is a priority, even if they aren't the main component of a dish.
"To me, consistency is everything," he said. "If the tomato's not good, the salad's not good."
Tucker also is consistent about the sizes of the tomatoes she delivers, making sure her customers get what they are looking for.
Hampton said he's already working with Tucker to purchase other vegetables including squash and peppers.
"I'm really excited about it," he said.
Tucker also grows cucumbers and in a few months will begin adding peppers, summer squash and okra. Later this year, she plans to grow broccoli, cabbage, green onions and greens.
Tucker has 1,862 tomato plants — five varieties, including two cherry tomatoes, an heirloom, a hybrid brown and the popular beefsteak.
Each plant generates about 600 pounds of tomatoes during its lifetime.
The tomatoes are fed for 2 minutes every half hour. They need to be maintained regularly — the plants undergo a weekly lean and lower technique to remove vines that grow too long to keep the plants healthy. Tucker said some of the vines can grow up to 30 feet.
"We start feeding them at 8 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon," Tucker said. "There's a lot of work involved in it."
They are grown in perlite, a form of volcanic glass that holds a lot of water. The perlite is placed in bato buckets, used for growing vined plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. Each bucket has two plants and a feeding system that includes emitters and feeding spikes.
"(The feeding system) sends the nutrients directly to the roots, so therefore they are getting everything they need right there without having to go out in the dirt and search for what they need," Tucker said.
Any excess nutrients are run off into a tank, where it is recycled for feeding Tucker's outdoor hydroponic garden.
The tomatoes are sorted into various sizes and delivered according to her customers' needs. The tomatoes that aren't shipped out or are returned from the grocers are made into salsas and relishes and sold in Tucker's farm store.
"Nothing gets wasted," she said.
Tucker recently gave a tour of her farm to students from Perry Central High School's FFA program and will be presenting at a farming conference in March in Jackson.
"I enjoy having new people come (to the farm), and make new friends and see the people in the community," she said.
It hasn't always been easy to run the farm.
Soon after gaining custody of her grandchildren, Tucker's father died and her husband wanted a divorce, so at 50, Tucker had to think fast and work hard.
She has raised her grandchildren since infancy. Her granddaughter is now 7, her grandson, 6.
"It's hard — they're both special needs," Tucker said. "But they're both doing real good."
She had enough money to buy her first greenhouse, but had to take out a loan for the other two. She managed to save money by buying used greenhouses and family members helped her move and install them.
The Jan. 21, 2017, tornado left her greenhouses unscathed, but due to lack of electricity, temperatures rose to 145 degrees, killing most of her tomato plants, leaving Tucker no alternative but to start over.
But farming is in her blood and she enjoys "digging in the dirt," so it feels a lot less like work, she said.
"It's kind of my stress relief here," Tucker said. "I just kind of dig my worries away."
Beth Tucker's hydroponic farm grows tomatoes and other seasonal vegetables without pesticides or chemicals. Her produce is grown without genetically modified organisms.
The tomatoes can be purchased at Corner Market locations in Hattiesburg, Oak Grove, Bellevue and Petal; Lil' Butcher Shoppe; Vitamins Plus in Hattiesburg; Lake Serene grocery stores in West Hattiesburg, Oak Grove and Glendale; and Ramey's in Purvis. She is working on expanding into larger grocery stores as well.
Sully's restaurants in Hattiesburg and Petal and occasionally Purple Parrot also use Tucker's tomatoes.
"First and foremost, you need to find something you like," Tucker said. "Find something you love and just go for it."
Having a good business plan also is a must, she said.
"Think about what all is entailed in a business, don't just jump off in it," Tucker said.
Tucker said hydroponic farming is not a new technology, but is now growing in popularity. And she likes growing without chemicals and being able to pick her produce when it is ripe.
"We can produce twice as much, about three times as much, in my greenhouses as a field farmer can in the same amount of land," she said. "I feel like eventually this is going to become our way of feeding people."
Homemade is a monthly series that features a Pine Belt company that makes or grows food products sold in retail outlets across the state, region or even country. The series will regularly appear in the Life section on the third Sunday of each month.