Bushel Boy Farms: A Minnesota Story Of Sustainable Agricultural Innovation

“Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people” ~ Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Bushel Boy Farms is at the forefront of innovative indoor agriculture and has been “extending Minnesota’s growing season” for the past 30 years.  Jay Johnson launched this business in Owatonna, Minnesota in 1990. Mr. Johnson began growing high quality tomatoes in his backyard and offering them to locals.  As the demand for his distinctive tomatoes grew, he started selling them via food stands and to grocery stores in town. Bushel Boy amassed a large following and began building green houses in order to expand the thriving business.  In 2018, Bushel Boy Farms was acquired by another Minnesota company, Shakopee-based Rahr Corporation. Rahr has provided the support to expand the assortment within the tomato category, but also look beyond tomatoes. Their drive to build off the rich history of growing premium quality tomatoes, along with the dedication to continue to innovate, has led to perhaps the most exciting 18 months in the company’s history.  What follows is the story of how Bushel Boy Farms came to be one of the most well known and respected produce companies in MN.  

We started Bushel Boy Farms in 1990 with a simple desire to enjoy ripe, garden-fresh, perfectly sweet and absolutely delicious tomatoes every day of the year — even in the middle of our harsh Minnesota winters. But unlike everyone else who was selling tomatoes in our area, we wanted to grow them right here, in Owatonna, Minnesota. ~ Bushel Boy Farms Website

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Greenhouse  Grown

The Greenhouses on the property are numbered one through nine.  The majority of our time was spent touring greenhouse number nine.  This is the newest building and is arguably one of the most high tech in North America.  Upon entering, we immediately noticed the expansive height of the 7 meter tall ceilings and the warm temperatures which they try to keep between 10 and 21 degrees C (58-70 Farenheit), depending on the time of year.  This is the test green house and has allowed the growers to take one 4.5 acre block and divide it into six ( ¾ acre blocks). This gives them the ability to:

  • Grow the same crop and variety of tomato six different ways.
  • Grow six diverse crops in contrasting plant zones.

The R & D applications are considerable in this environment. They can test and trial an array of plants. This layout allows them to optimize successful growth methods in the 3/4 acre blocks before growing them in one of the other eight greenhouses which are 3 to 4.5 acres in size.  

They have been able to achieve high levels of expertise regarding the best ways to grow their legacy assortments.  Creating the ability to trial the best growing methods with their new varieties has been proven to be extremely beneficial as well.

“We grow all of our tomatoes in greenhouses, so we can ensure perfect growing conditions in any kind of weather.  When it’s hot, chalk coating on the roof of the greenhouses reflects the sun, misters inside apply a cooling mist to the plants and vertical fans redistribute hot air.  On cloudy days, we use lamps to make up for lack of sunlight; during the winter we use large boilers to heat water that we pipe into the greenhouses. And instead of releasing the CO2 produced by the boilers into the atmosphere, we pipe it back into the greenhouses for the tomato plants to breathe”  – Bushel Boy Farms Website

Strawberries

Strawberries are a recent addition to Bushel Boy Farms.  They take up 3/4 of an acre in the greenhouse. They are currently pilot testing them in several stores in the Twin Cities area and 2 in Owatonna.  The most recent crop produced fruit 5 weeks faster than anticipated, which is telling in terms of the benefits of the growing environment. They were planted in early December of 2019 and they were ready for harvest in early January, 2020.  

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 Tomatoes

The tomato plants are 12-15 inches tall when Bushel Boy Farms receives them.  They choose their varieties based on flavor, appearance, vine color and thickness vs prospective yield numbers.  They don’t have to be as shelf-stability focused as the tomatoes are picked, transported and received by grocery stores in such a compressed amount of time, while they are at their peak freshness.  When tomatoes are shipped from out of state, they mature during the journey, and can be close to being beyond their optimum levels of ripeness when they finally reach the store shelves and ultimately the consumers.  The Bushel Boy Tomato vines are initially grown and propagated in Canada. Everything else happens in the green houses in Owatonna. They are planted in a growing medium called rock wool. This method allows for more efficient absorption of essential nutrients via the roots and it holds up better than regular dirt. The rock wool is more expensive but it is cleaner and more sustainable. Because the roots can hold increased moisture, less water is needed.  

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At the end of the plants life, the vine is about 50 feet long.  Every time they pick, they lower and move the vine. This means all of the pick-able fruit is at eye level.  Growth starts on the front end of the rails and moving “clips” are used to maneuver the tomato plants towards the back of the line.  The photos directly above and below depict how the vines grow horizontally with the clusters of tomatoes at eye level , once they ripen, they are hand picked.  After that cluster is picked, the support will be moved to the right, bringing the next cluster down to eye level, and this process is continually repeated for the lifetime of the vine. 

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Water Use

Water tanks on the property are used to store all of the rainwater that hits the ceilings.  Runoff is collected from the drip irrigation as well. It is sterilized and reused. None of the water that hits the top of the green house, or the water that is used inside the greenhouses, is wasted.   

Plants are watered through drip irrigation so each one gets the precise amount of water and nutrients over the correct period of time.  

Lights

  • LED – “Light emitting diode (LED) lights are often used to encourage plant growth. Plants utilize different wavelengths of light to promote vegetative growth and flowering. LED lights are very efficient and capable of producing the type of light needed by plants”  ~ Sciencing.com
  • High Pressure Sodium – “High-pressure sodium bulbs are high-intensity lights, too, but instead of being “blue” lights that mimic bright summer sunlight, they are “yellow” and “red” in the color spectrum. This light mimics the “red” sunlight of early morning and evening in the spring and fall” ~ Quest.com

Shades 

Checker block shades were installed on the ceilings. They control how much light gets in during the summer.  This is done for temperature control, for example they can set them so the plants receive 50-80 % shade, etc..

In the winter it’s very dark and in the summer it’s very humid, neither of which is good for tomato growth. The regulation of temperature and light levels are crucial for ideal growth. 

Tomato Varieties (not all are pictured)

  • Vine-on
  • Bubba
  • Baby Boys
  • Tomato Medley
  • Red Cherry
  • Red Grape
  • Vine Cocktail

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The Bees

Honey bees play a tremendous role in the production of the fruits and vegetables that we grow and consume.  Bees are critical to pollination and they make powerful contributions to agriculture as a whole, they are essential to the operations at Bushel Boy Farms.  It would be extremely time consuming and prohibitively expensive to manually pollinate each plant. They have hives dispersed throughout the greenhouses.  All nine of the greenhouses are pollinator friendly. 

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Transportation

“Road transportation is going to be the greatest contributor to global warming for the next 50 years according to a recent study by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. By analyzing the climate impact of each sector of the economy, the study determined that motor vehicles emit significant levels of pollutants that warm the atmosphere with few counteracting pollutants that create a cooling effect” ~ Carnegie Endowment Website

Food miles matter and by choosing to purchase produce from local businesses, we can have direct and positive impacts on the environment.  During a majority of the calendar year, a substantial quantity of the tomatoes on our store shelves are grown in far away locations and thus, are transported here over many miles and several days.  Local delivery is more Eco-Friendly because shorter trips contribute to reduced fuel usage and a decrease in CO2 emissions.  

Recipes using Bushel Boy Farm Products

BLT’s with Avocado and Sriracha Aioli

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Ingredients

Instructions

1. Cook bacon over medium-high heat in a deep skillet until browned and crispy.  Transfer to a paper towel lined plate to drain.

2.  Build the sandwich by evenly dividing and layering the bacon, lettuce, sliced tomatoes and sliced avocados onto 2 of the toast slices. Slather the remaining two slices with the sriracha aioli and place them aioli side down onto the ingredients, forming a sandwich.  Slice and serve immediately.  

Waffle Bowls with Ice Cream, Bushel Boy Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar

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Ingredients

  • 2 Joy Waffle Bowls
  • 1 pint of Sweet Me Creamery Sea Salt Chocolate Ice Cream
  • 1 package of Bushel Boy Strawberries, rinsed and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons of high quality balsamic vinegar 
  • Fresh mint leaves for garnish (optional)

Instructions

  1. Fill Waffle bowls with ice cream.
  2. Top with sliced strawberries
  3. Drizzle each ice cream bowl with 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar.  Garnish with mint leaves. Serve immediately.

Burrata Toast with Bushel Boy Roasted Tomato Medley

 

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Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Slice tomatoes lengthwise, place on a heavy duty baking sheet, toss with slivered garlic and fresh basil leaves.  Drizzle with enough olive oil to coat. Sprinkle generously with sea salt.
  3. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tomatoes are slightly soft and aromatic.
  4. Remove from oven
  5. Toast artisan bread
  6. Spread enough burrata cheese on the toast to cover.  Top with the roasted tomato medley.  Sprinkle with additional sea salt.  Drizzle lightly with olive oil and serve immediately.

 

What Bushel Boy farms is doing to help fight hunger in the community  

“We donate literally tons of tomatoes a year to help local food shelves fight hunger, shipping our less than perfect tomatoes to Second Harvest Heartland in the Twin Cities and Channel One in Rochester. We are proud to provide these organizations with fresh, healthy produce to help families in need get good nutrition” ~ Bushel Boy Farms Website

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Click here to read about the measures Bushel Boy Farms has taken to ensure the safety and availability of their produce during the Covid-19 outbreak.  They have been working hard to keep the store shelves stocked so there is no interruption during this chaotic time.  

 

“Farm to Table…Ocean to Fork…and Vineyard to Glass.  We cast our votes in favor of the planet one bite, one sip at a time” ~ Lisa Patrin

Related sustainability blog posts:

The Farm To Fork Project: How We Can Work Together To Achieve Sustainability

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