Story and photos by Emily Stifler Wolfe EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – The first time Tim Gallagher tried to grow hydroponic tomatoes, in 1971, a 180-mph wind gust lifted the edge of his greenhouse and tore it apart. Debris from the greenhouse was found 15 miles away.
Gallagher shelved the project, instead focusing on the garden center and plant nursery he owned for 26 years in Boulder, Colorado.
Four decades later, Gallagher finally has his greenhouse, this time in the field behind his home at 7 Spruce Farm in Bozeman.
“The principle behind hydroponic farming is the same as 45 years ago, but the technology is unbelievably different,” he says.
A $15,000 computer controls the climate inside the 3,000-square-foot structure, keeping it at 87.3 degrees and 41 percent relative humidity. The watering system—or as Gallagher calls it, “the IV unit”—infuses the plant roots with fertilizer and water nine times a day.
While climate and watering are automatic, the rest of the operation is anything but.
Gallagher’s wife Darcy—a former business analyst at the University of Colorado-Boulder—also works full time on the operation; Gallagher’s stepson and his wife, Zac and Heather Collins—a GIS analyst and the development director at Eagle Mount, respectively—are involved in operations.
7 Spruce tomatoes are a hybrid called Rebelski, a type of beefsteak with glossy skin and ribbed shoulders like an heirloom. Because they are an indeterminate variety, the vines continue growing throughout the season, unlike a determinate bush tomato that stays small. A spooled string hung from above supports the vines.
“They grow and grow and grow until they get to the top of the spool, and we let them down in two foot increments every two weeks,” Gallagher explains, adding that the bare vine, laid down alongside the rows, will be about 50 feet long by Thanksgiving. “It’s very meticulous work, because these plants with fruit weigh 50 to 60 pounds. Someone has to hold it to be sure it doesn’t fall.”
Their toil is paying off. Since finishing construction on the greenhouse in late January and planting 600 seedlings in March, Gallagher estimates they have harvested 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, all picked right before they go to market. He hopes to harvest 30,000 pounds before the season ends around Thanksgiving.
Nearly the entire crop is spoken for by local restaurants and grocers. They include Red Chair Cafe, the Yellowstone Club, Black Bull, Open Range, Over the Tapas, Sauce Food Truck, Ale Works, Riverside Country Club, the Bozeman Community Food Co-op and Rosauers. Gallagher also makes regular deliveries to the Bozeman Food Bank.
“Visually, the tomatoes are stunning,” said Stanford Isobe, executive chef at Riverside Country Club, who contacted Gallagher when a club member told him about the new greenhouse.
“A few days later he was down here with tomatoes. We got a knife out, cut a thick slice, and touched it with salt and pepper.” One bite of the deep red, juicy fruit, and Isobe was sold. Now he uses them in salads, sauces, and a fresh tomato Pomodoro linguini.
Corey Ceccacci, the executive chef at Black Bull golf community, showcases the tomatoes in a simple Caprese salad with mozzarella and basil. “They remind me of back East, when my grandma would harvest tomatoes in August and September, and we’d have a tomato sandwich with salt, pepper and vinegar,” Ceccacci said.
With sales outpacing harvest, the Gallaghers plan to build a second tomato greenhouse this fall, and eventually, houses for peppers and cucumbers.
“It’s the way of the future,” Gallagher says, noting that his hydroponic greenhouse equals a three-acre outside plot, in terms of what he could grow. He looks around at his plants. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”