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Greenhouse venture focuses on local

Tom Casteels is adding value to the family business with a new Caesar drink mix

Tom Casteels of Centreton, Ont. virtually grew up in a greenhouse, helping his father Alfons in the hydroponic-tomatoes business.

Now that he’s buying it, he’s setting out to follow his own vision of creating a value-added product.

Casteels considered making a salsa or tomato sauce, but decided so many of those already exist, so he developed Casteels Craft Caesar Mix, which hit the shelves in Cobourg and Colborne Foodland stores just before Christmas.

He estimated that holiday sales accounted for about 70 cases of sales.

While Casteels said it blends beautifully with vodka for a classic Bloody Caesar, he hopes people will give it a try on its own.

“I actually drink it on ice, and it’s a wonderful alternative,” he said.

“Over Christmas we went to a couple of parties, I was the designated driver, and I drank that.”

Like so many growers, Casteels is devoted to Casteels Greenhouses but struggles with costs that seem to grow every year.

Alfons, left, and Tom Casteels with their locally made Caesar mix.
photo: Cecilia Nasmith

Another issue he faced each year was seasonal surpluses of tomatoes that seem to occur over August and September, when the market is flooded with field tomatoes as well as the hydroponics. A couple of years ago, the inspiration hit him for his spin-off product.

With funding from the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corp., he was able to lease facilities in Colborne at the Ontario Agrifood Venture Centre — the test kitchen, the freezers, the services of chef Emilio Ojeda in creating the winning recipe.

It was hundreds and hundreds of hours of work, he estimated, but worth the results.

Casteels is buying the operation from his father Alfons, who created a well-established brand over the years. In fact, those Foodland stores that purchase his harvest always make a point of labelling them as Casteels tomatoes, and local consumers seek them out.

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The three Casteels sons, Tom and his two brothers, grew up and found other careers. For Tom, it was teaching. But he found his way back to the greenhouse summers, weekends and evenings and eventually decided to purchase the business.

He’s not afraid of a little hard work.

“If you aren’t consumed by it, you won’t be successful,” he declared.

A 30-year history of growing tomatoes

Alfons Casteels planted his first tomatoes on their Centreton farm 32 years ago in the greenhouse where he once grew tobacco. That was a declining crop in that area by the mid-1980s, he recalled, so he tried a crop of tomatoes. Trial and error with methods and varieties were a learning curve to develop what is now a tasty thriving crop each year.

“We’ve made huge strides in the last 10 years,” Tom added.

His dad delivered his first crops around to farms and markets, and their reputation for quality and flavour has grown.

Even with his sons to help, Alfons provided some degree of employment in the community, At least four people are involved in the operations once the crop gets going and, when the season shifts into high gear, they may hire as many as half dozen employees on top of that.

A year’s crop is about 12,000 tomatoes in three varieties: on-the-vine, cocktail tomatoes and hothouse tomatoes (also known as beefsteak tomatoes).

The 2019 crop was planted Jan. 25. Within days, the plants were already shin-high and starting to climb the vertical wires each one is wound around and clipped to.

The plants eventually grow to the height of the horizontal wires eight to 10 feet overhead.

The tomatoes hang high and dry, safe from bad weather conditions. As for insects, these pests are actually controlled without chemicals through the use of other insects, such as the tiny parasitic wasps they deploy to control whiteflies and aphids.

Each row is separated from the next by a plastic trough with irrigation pipes. These double as rails that carry chairs with runners along the rows, so staff can care for the plants up close.

“It’s a very precise system, and it works very well,” Alfons said.

An early harvest may start in mid-March, but the Casteels usually count on being able to sell their tomatoes from April 1 through Dec. 1.

The operation is hundreds of kilometres away from the large greenhouses and giant tomato facilities of Leamington, Ont., and the Casteels say this is a big plus. For one thing, there is less of a pest problem, with predatory creatures jumping from one greenhouse to another. And when they go to sell the crop to grocery stores, there is less competition.

Alfons estimated that their greenhouse is 50,000 sq. feet, little more than an acre in area.

In Leamington, greenhouses of 20, 50 or even 100 acres can be found.

“Because we are small, we have control of the entire production and sales operation,” he said.

It’s intensive work, Tom added. Compared to Leamington operations that send their crops to warehouses to be sorted and distributed and marketed, they do it all.

Tom loves seeing the Casteels name labelling their tomatoes in the Foodland. Sometimes they’ll take an extra step and put up a real display, setting out the tomatoes in crates. This seems to boost sales, he has found.

Tom had the new buy-local movement in mind for his Caesar mix when he put a small bit of his family’s history in the community on the label. “Born from a family heritage of growing the best tomatoes in Northumberland,” the heading states.

Next to that and also on the bottle cap, there’s an outline of Northumberland County. And on the front of the label, he made a point of labelling it as a product of Northumberland County made from local tomatoes.

Nearby Prince Edward County has a mystique about its wine, he figures, and Northumberland has much to boast about with its own food-and-beverage sector.

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