Going Carbon-Neutral With Miscanthus

Discover how miscanthus helped one successful Canadian tomato farmer come closer to achieving carbon neutrality.


| July 2014



Miscanthus

A stand of Miscanthus giganteus.


Illustration courtesy William Morrow

Frustrated by plants that fail to thrive, Ruth Kassinger sets out to understand the basics of botany in order to become a better gardener. In Garden of Marvels (William Morrow, 2014), she retraces the progress of the first botanists who banished myths and misunderstandings and discovered that flowers have sex, leaves eat air, roots choose their food and hormones make morning glories climb fence posts. Intertwining personal anecdote, accessible science and untold history, the ever-engaging author takes us on an eye-opening journey into her garden…and yours. The following excerpt comes from chapter twenty, “Amazing Grass.”

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: A Garden of Marvels.

Some midwinter day when you’re in the grocery store, pick up a few boxes of cherry tomatoes and read the labels to see where they were grown. Most come from Mexico. That makes sense: warm climate, long hours of sunlight. Others are from Canada, grown in greenhouses. The strange thing is that both boxes are about the same price. How can a Canadian grower who must pay for heat compete with the Mexican grower who gets all his therms for free? In the summer of 2011, I set out to find the answer at Pyramid Farms in Leamington, Ontario, where owner Dean Tiessen has thirty-seven acres of vegetables under glass roofs. As soon as I pull into the farm’s office, having driven about an hour southeast from Detroit, Dean bounds out to greet me. He is a fit and handsome man in his mid-forties with a straight-up shock of dark hair.

If anyone has farming in his blood, Dean does. His forebears were Dutch Mennonite farmers invited by Catherine the Great in the 1760s to settle and modernize farming in southern Ukraine. There they stayed, farming lucratively generation after generation, until the communist revolution in 1917. Dispossessed by collectivization, his grandparents fled to Canada and settled in Leamington, where, on one and a half acres, they grew seedless cucumbers and tomatoes in greenhouses. The farm passed to Dean’s father in the 1950s, and about ten years ago Dean, his brother, and two cousins took over. They transformed a small operation that sold into the local market into a business that supports three families, employs more than a hundred people, and sells across North America. Pyramid Farms now competes in a highly price-sensitive, global market.

The tomato growing process

So how does a Canadian succeed? Dean slides open a greenhouse door to show me. Forget tomato bushes. I am looking into an eight-foot- tall solid wall of tomato vines that extends the sixty-foot length of the greenhouse. It is densely hung with tomatoes, the largest, reddest ones toward the bottom, little green ones at the top. I peer through the wall, and see another one just a few feet behind this one. Dean tells me there are about a hundred tomato walls—he calls them rows, but that doesn’t do justice to their bulk—in each greenhouse. This is tomato growing at its most intensive and efficient.

We look at the base of one wall. Forget soil. Two tomato vines, thick as ropes, emerge every foot or so from a foam block set in a narrow trough in the concrete floor. A black umbilical cord of water and nutrients runs into each block. Far above, a horizontal wire runs the length of the greenhouse just below the ridgeline. Spools of string hang down from the wire every few feet. Each vine is assigned its own string and has been trained to grow up along it. Every two weeks, the spools move farther along the horizontal wire and unwind about two feet of string. Every week, a worker on a lift twirls a newly grown length of vine up the bare string toward the overhead wire. The tip of each vine grows farther and farther from its base. Eventually the tips will be sixty feet from their roots. The lengthening of the strings effectively lowers the older portions of the vines, so that great ropes of parallel, leafy, tomato-filled vines slope very gradually from floor to ceiling.





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