Iowa family raises the bar on quality together

Kay Gradoville and daughter Liz wait on customers at the Omaha Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning.
Photos by Steve Trusty.

John and Kay Gradoville and family are becoming known for a number of things. Through their Graddy’s Great-Tasting Tomatoes, they’re known for their colorful vine-ripened tomatoes in a radius of at least a hundred miles of their Carroll, Iowa, home. They are also becoming known for their excellent salsas. Their three children (now adults) have been active in the business and all five enjoy golf together and individually in other settings. John has done well in a number of golf tournaments. As a senior, daughter Liz was a member of the Iowa State High School Class 2-A Golf Championship team this spring.

Graddy’s beginnings

John and Kay grew up in the Carroll, Iowa, area (population 20,926). After graduating from Creighton University in Omaha with a degree in finance and marketing, John went on to become a manager with Target. That took them to Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. When they came back to Carroll in December of 1998, John’s brother-in-law showed them a greenhouse in which he had installed the heating and irrigation systems. A friend had built the greenhouse to grow tomatoes hydroponically but died suddenly a few weeks before the Gradovilles’ visit. Since they had gotten the gardening bug and had tasted fresh hydroponically grown tomatoes near their Pennsylvania home, they decided to develop a plan that would put them in the business back home. They purchased the greenhouse from the owner’s widow, and Graddy’s sold their first tomatoes in November of 1999.

John shows off a tomato ready for market.

The original greenhouse is 88 feet by 128 feet. In 2000, they built another greenhouse that is 176 feet by 128 feet. This now gives them nearly an acre of cover for their 9,000 tomato plants—6,000 in the larger house and 3,000 in the smaller. They also have a little room to grow some cilantro for their salsas and a few other plants primarily for their personal use. Besides the two greenhouses, they have an area between them for making the salsa, office space, the irrigation and fertigation station and refrigeration. There is also the large area for sorting and packaging the tomatoes and staging shipments, along with the loading dock.

The growing

Each year, about mid-December, Graddy’s brings in the new plants. The crop in 2010 was planted December 17, 2009, and the first tomatoes were harvested on March 20, 2010. They use grafted tomatoes from Houwelings in British Columbia.

John says, “We feel that with the combination of selected varieties and the hardier rootstock we can grow a better crop over a longer season and increase disease resistance. We select varieties especially suited to our area and to hydroponic growing.”

Joel Pawletski walks on stilts to reach to the tops of the vines to remove suckers, extra flowers and leaves.

They test new varieties and make changes based on a number of factors. The varieties this year included Matrix, Beorange, Jelona and Realeza. About 75 percent of their crop is red, 12.5 percent orange, 8 percent yellow and 4 percent Roma. They also grow a few cherry and grape tomatoes.

The plug plants are set in growing cubes in the newer house and into growing bags in the other house. The growing medium is straight perlite. Then the training begins; the plants are pruned weekly and trained along a network of wire trellis to obtain maximum production in the available space.

As the plants send out shoots and suckers, clusters of three leaves and one sucker are allowed to grow on. They want the plant less dense to allow increased light onto the leaves. Each 1 percent increase in light equates to a 1 percent increase in production. They follow this regimen from March 30 to April 5. Suckers are removed twice a week. As the season continues and the light intensity increases, the pruning is adjusted to stimulate growth and production while at the same time providing some shade to the forming tomatoes. Old growth along the stems is also removed to channel increased nutrients for the fruiting parts.

All the tomato leaves and other trimmings are taken to the Carroll landfill as their truck fills up. These materials are used as an important ingredient to the town’s composting and mulch production operation.

As the tomato flowers develop, they are removed to leave three to five flowers per cluster. The three flower clusters produce larger tomatoes that are usually harvested as individuals. The five-flowered ones are harvested and sold as clusters.

When Graddy’s first started, they hand-pollinated the flowers. They used a vibrating stick, touching the flowers for a day or two and letting the pollen fall. They now ship in bees from Michigan. This has been the most productive method, and the bees provide their services for a period of about 12 weeks.

Larva of beneficial wasps are brought in on little cards to control whitefly. They also use sticky traps for other insects that might get into the houses. They don’t believe in spraying pesticides on their crop.

The drip irrigation is carefully controlled with emitters delivering water and fertilizer directly into the bag or cube. The water comes from the city, which, according to John, is more reliable than a well.

Fertilizer is provided along with the water. Timing is based on day length and amount of sun radiation. It is all computer- controlled with parameters set by John. He says, “We used to schedule the fertilizer based on the clock but found that to be inefficient, as it didn’t take into account the plants’ needs. We send leaf samples to a lab in Athens, Ga., to determine plant requirements. I then set the mixture of nutrients based on the test results and the time of year.” Nutrients used include calcium nitrate, potassium, iron sulfate, nitrogen, sulfate of potash, magnesium (from Epsom salts), copper, zinc and manganese.

Omar Alvarrez sorts tomatoes in preparation for market.

Around the end of November, the plants have reached their peak, there is less light, and heat becomes more critical. It’s time to finish this crop and get ready to start over again in mid-December. When the harvesting stops, the greenhouses are stripped of plant material and growing medium and the entire area is sanitized. Then, the Gradovilles relax a bit and start the process again.

The greenhouses are heated with 4.5 miles of heat tubing under the floors. The natural gas heating bill can be up to $1,000 a day during the coldest periods. An evaporative cooling system is also used.

The working hours change with the seasons. Kay says, “We start out from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. As the days get longer and hotter, our schedule goes from 5:30 to 1 p.m. That lasts until end of July and then goes back to the 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule.”

Besides the five family members, there are seven full-time and one part-time employee. Most have been there for several years. John says, “Joel Pawletski has been with us since day one. He is responsible for most of the pruning, trimming, suckering and tying. Nati German is in charge of making the salsas. Jesus Valle oversees harvest and other greenhouse tasks. Omar Alvarrez does a lot of the sorting and packing.

John oversees the growing, harvesting and shipping. Kay assists with sales, especially the markets.

Tomatoes line the greenhouse at Graddy’s in Carroll, Iowa.
Graddy’s brings in bees every 12 weeks to pollinate the tomatoes.

After completing his college work, son Ben received great experience in other businesses, but is now back full-time and taking over the sales aspects. Son Nick attends Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll. His plans are to continue his education at Iowa State University, pursuing a degree in greenhouse production. He has helped with many of the technical aspects. Liz is going on to Creighton University to study nursing but will continue to help out whenever possible. She will be close to the Omaha Farmers’ Market. All three, plus Kay, are regulars behind the tables at the markets.

The selling

Graddy’s sells their tomatoes and salsas at farmers’ markets in Omaha and Des Moines. Kay says, “We sell 98 percent of our crop through area grocery stores. In some cases, we deliver to the individual stores and to others we deliver to the central warehouse. Our customers include Hy Vee, Cub Foods, Fareway and Gateway Market around Iowa and Nebraska.”

Tomatoes for the stores are picked a few days earlier than those for the farmers’ markets. The tomatoes for the markets are picked the day before and most are ready to eat or will be within a few days. John says, “Seven days of extra sugar production on the vine results in fruit with up to 80 percent more sugar content. Thus, more flavor.”

In 2001, Graddy’s decided to make salsas as a way to use up the smaller tomatoes that didn’t sell as well at the markets. They now have mild, medium and hot salsa, a tomato mango salsa and a bean salsa. Kay says, “We use only fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and other fresh ingredients, with just enough xanthan gum for thickener. It is not cooked.” The salsas are kept cold in portable coolers. They even have some small coolers on hand at the farmers’ markets for those who wish to make a purchase but are not going right home.

Graddy’s annual sales have now reached about $500,000.

The Gradovilles have found a way to balance family, farm and fun to have time together and separately and operate a successful business that is supplying many people with tasty fresh tomatoes and salsas on a nearly year-round basis.

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.