The winter of our content 

Heirloom tomatoes brighten cold-weather tables.

click to enlarge MID-WINTER 'MATERS: Cone Farms manager Garry Koettel with some of  Monday's pick.
  • MID-WINTER 'MATERS: Cone Farms manager Garry Koettel with some of Monday's pick.

There are, no doubt, a number of tomato aficionados in this state who would call the growing of that summer fruit in the dead of winter the devil's business.

But Jimmy Cone's betting there are enough who think otherwise to keep his latest business venture, Cone Farms LLC, growing.

Cone — or, more precisely, his old friend Garry Koettel, who manages the farm's daily operations — raises organic heirloom tomatoes in a half-acre greenhouse just this side of Sheridan. They're a high-end, niche product, currently retailing for $5 a pound at the Fresh Market store in West Little Rock, but less than a year into things, demand is so strong that the farm's 6,000 plants can't keep up.

Tomatoes aren't naturally a winter crop, of course, and those imported from warmer climates are infamous for their resemblance to cardboard. But Koettel insists that Cone Farms' 'maters are different because they are genuinely vine-ripened, not picked green and treated with ethylene gas to change their color.

Jokes Cone: “If people ate our tomatoes long enough, the BLT would become the TLB. The tomato would get top billing.”

Rather than take Cone and Koettel's word for it, we shared a sampling of Monday's pick with some tomato connoisseurs at the office. Their verdict: Not quite as good as summer, but much better than your typical winter hothouse tomato.

It's a decent accomplishment for two guys in their 50s who just started farming a year ago. Cone is a contractor — his main business is James H. Cone Inc., a commercial construction company — who also has an MBA from Harvard. Koettel was a civil engineer who'd worked for Tyson and Wal-Mart, among others.

Cone bought the farm in 2006 from Vestal Gourmet Foods, a now-defunct tomato-growing operation. Cone said he'd always wanted to farm, and as a businessman was intrigued by the profit potential in organic produce.

The two men researched organic farming and tomatoes, and got the first beds going about a year ago. They've now got six varieties — Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Orange Beefsteak, Lemmony, Gary Ibsen Gold and Boxcar Willie.

Opening the door to the greenhouse is like opening a door onto June: luxuriously warm, humid and bright, with bees meandering from plant to plant. Heated water runs through pipes imbedded in the concrete floor to keep the plants' roots warm; irrigation hoses keep them wet, and eight carbon dioxide generators keep the atmosphere plant-friendly. Cats keep scavenging rodents in check.

And because the plants grow in such close quarters — they're crammed in shoulder to shoulder, each with a mere half a cubic foot of dirt — nutrients are pretty much mainlined into the vines.

Here's where you might want to quit reading.

Generally, organic fertilizer means manure. But, Koettel said, using a lot of manure means risking that the crop will be contaminated with fecal bacteria. So they've experimented with several nutrient mixtures that keep the poop to a minimum. The current formula does contain some bat guano, but the primary ingredient is emulsified fish extract — more commonly known as fish guts.

Koettel swears it doesn't smell that bad as long as it's fairly fresh. To prove it, he pumps some out of a blue plastic 50-gallon drum into a yellow cup. It looks like watered-down tobacco juice, and while the smell doesn't travel — you have to stick your nose in pretty close to get a whiff — it's potent and unpleasant.

On a good day like last Monday, when there's been plenty of sunshine, Koettel and his workers may pick 450 pounds of tomatoes, which they pack into 10-pound boxes that sell for up to $42 each.

Finding markets for the tomatoes was the easy part: Cone said an intern who worked for them last summer researched possibilities on the Internet, then started making cold calls.

“He found there was lot of interest in ... the heirlooms, even if they're not organic,” Cone said.

“You can sell those as fast as you can grow them.”

(Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have not been genetically modified and have existed for at least 100 years.)

They ship to stores as far away as Austin, Texas and Indianapolis, Koettel said, and locally they're available at Fresh Market, Boulevard Bread and, sometimes, at Wild Oats. You'll also eat Cone Farms tomatoes at Little Rock restaurants, including Imagine, So, Ferneau, Ashley's and Brave New Restaurant.

Cone said he's not yet making a profit — they aren't producing enough tomatoes yet for that — and there have been some growing pains. It's taken Koettel several tries to find the right nutrient mix, and a virus that affects the tomato plants' growth has spread through the greenhouse. A second greenhouse is under construction, and once it's finished later this spring, Koettel said, they'll clean out all the plants from the first greenhouse and start fresh with uninfected plants.

Cone said they're also looking at branching into other crops. The farm has 80 acres, but only 6.6 acres are currently certified organic, Koettel said. Land has to have had no artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides used on it for three years before it can be certified organic.

“We're trying to increase productivity in a lot of different kinds of ways,” Cone said. “When we get to a larger capacity we'll be in better shape.”

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