GALVESTON – When families delve into the agriculture scene, common crops that pop up are corn, soybeans, and wheat. And that’s no different for the Wilson and Miller families.
But what sets these farming families apart from so many others is their passion for one particular fruit – the tomato. Both have been raising the Roma varieties for so long that they have perfected their skills.
At least, that’s what has become evident to Red Gold, the company with which both families are contracted. The tomatoes are grown for the Elwood-based company so ketchup and sauces can be produced.
Each year, Red Gold honors the farmers they deem to be the “cream of the crop” with a Master Grower Award. Last year, there were six out of 47 growers who received the honor – and two of them were from Cass County.
Kevin, Kurt, and Kory Wilson of Red Ripe Farms Inc. have earned 11 awards since 1992, and Drew Miller has earned five, with the last two being on his own.
Danna Dolliver, agriculture administration manager with Red Gold, said that the award is given to farming operations that excel in all phases of their tomato season. Based upon the definition of the company’s Master Grower qualifications, she said, that means recipients “set themselves apart in terms of providing outstanding quality fruit and demonstrating superb management characteristics. These attributes may include HR management, accounting, soil science, business management, mechanics, purchasing, transportation, marketing, and strategic planning.”
Of their 4,000 acres of land, the Wilson brothers reserve 315 acres for tomatoes. Planting season began the first of May and ended June 10, said Kevin.
Between that time and harvest, a lot of work goes into producing the perfect red, ripe fruits. With a staggered planting season, it helps keep everything on track so that at harvest time, that can be staggered as well, Kevin explained.
And during the in-between stages, Kory said his time is spent checking the product and spraying the plants for bacteria and weeds, as well as fungicides. He maintains a seven-day spray schedule, which allows each of the 11 varieties to receive 13 to 15 sprays prior to harvest.
“It makes the plants healthier, so you get more yields,” Kory said of his job, adding that all three brothers have specific skills that are used individually, but they also work together to accomplish their goals.
They also depend upon three full-time employees and several part-time workers.
Plus, said Kurt, Red Gold has been great to work with. “They work with us and help us to be more efficient. They have high expectations, and so do we.”
One example, Kurt said, is the gear needed for tomato-growing. “It requires special equipment, some of our (machinery) comes from Italy.”
But they also have a constant battle against the elements. “We worry about too much water,” said Kevin. “We don’t irrigate here. And tomatoes cost more money per acre than any other crop.”
Kevin explained that Red Gold provides them with a schedule so that they know which kind of tomato is needed and what the crop will be used for, whether to can, produce juice, or make ketchup.
Raising tomatoes is “definitely more challenging than corn or soybeans because of the regulations,” Kory said. “There are three to four times more documentation required. Plus, tracing a load all comes down to a barcode that’s attached to a product.”
And then finding helpers adds to the difficulties, said Kevin. “Labor is huge. Finding workers at harvest and at setting is a real challenge.”
Years ago, workers would travel from the southern states and stay throughout growing season. They would handpick the produce, which demanded a lot of people, Kevin said. But now, people go wherever needed and then travel back to a new place. It’s a constant back-and-forth situation from May to roughly October.
When detasseling of corn is done in Nebraska, Kevin said a crew of workers will make their way back to the Wilsons’ farm to help bring in their crops. “When the tomatoes are ready, you’ve got to pick them. You don’t want them too soft or too red,” he said, adding that truckloads will be delivered to Elwood and Orestes. More than 10,300 tons will be provided to Red Gold.
Drew Miller’s farm will end up with roughly the same amount from his 325 acres dedicated to tomatoes. Overall, he has 4,200 acres in Cass, Carroll, Howard, and Miami counties.
But one aspect he’s especially fond of is that his family can lay claim to being an original grower for Red Gold. His grandfather was a Red Gold farmer before the company was known by its current name, he said.
Don’t let the work fool anyone, though, he said. “It’s high stress.”
“Yet, it’s unique. Not everyone does it,” Drew said of raising tomatoes. “It is more labor-intensive.” In fact, in addition to the three full-time workers, he’ll bring on a staff of seasonal members, with at least 12 serving in a part-time capacity for spring and around 10 to 12 for the fall. Additional employees help with the corn and soybeans.
Being able to grow for Red Gold means so much to Drew, said his wife, Ashlie. “He’s carrying on a family tradition.” One that will – hopefully – be passed onto their daughters, Dylan, 6, and Layne, 4, down the road, she added.
Prepping their daughters for taking over the family business, the couple spends time teaching the girls how to properly set plants, monitor progress, and inspect for any diseases. Plus, it’s a way for father to bond with his daughters.
Feeling blessed to be in this line of work, Drew said that “doing something that I always wanted to do is rewarding. I always wanted to be a farmer, and I am. It is rewarding. Not a lot of people can say that about their (careers).”
So when he spends 80 to 100 hours per week working during the spring and fall seasons, it doesn’t faze Drew. It’s a far cry from the 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. summer and winter hours, but it’s a difficult yet fun way to make a living.
And just when the couple didn’t think their lives could get more hectic, they opted to expand into a new territory that’s been a success since the start.
“During the pandemic, there was a push for local products,” said Ashlie. Therefore, the couple started a side business that has become Ashlie’s full-time job – Hoosier Steaks, a company that works with Midwest farms to butcher and ship “high-quality” USDA-approved meats, she said. Ground beef and steaks are just a couple varieties that may be purchased and shipped anywhere in the U.S.
Ashlie said special gift boxes can be made for Father’s Day and Christmas. She even has begun adding corporate gifting to the selections.
“We provide a wonderful product,” she said. “And it’s so nice that Red Gold supports us. They even let us put their ketchup bottles in our boxes.”
“They really are a wonderful company to work with,” said Ashlie. “They know us personally. They know all of their growers personally. They honestly do care.”