This year’s Farm Bureau book for schools is titled “Tomatoes for Neela.” It is perfect for Niagara County because we have a number of commercial growers here. One of them, Max Russell, agreed to be my expert again. You may remember the in-depth information he gave me to let you know about cabbage.

Here is the process for Russell Farms. They purchase the seed for the varieties of tomato they want to grow. Field tomatoes, or determinate varieties, grow to a certain height and then put all of their energy into producing fruit. Some of them end up looking like bushes. This fruit can be harvested over a four- to five-week period.

Indeterminate varieties are the ones grown in greenhouses. They have a slightly different structure and can produce fruit for up to 10 months.

To return to the process, once the seed is selected, it is sent to a greenhouse to start the growing season. Most of their tomatoes are round, globe types. Think beefsteak or slicing tomatoes. They also grow some plum tomatoes.

Once the plants reach a certain size, they are transplanted into the field. Transplanting here begins in early May and can go through mid June, which will spread out the harvest. Most varieties take about three months to mature. Why early May? Any earlier and there still may be frost. That will harm the plant growth.

To prepare the field, fertilizer has been broadcast. This is where the first step of this labor-intensive crop comes into play. The transplanter is pulled behind a tractor while farm workers sitting on the machine feed the plants through one by one.

There are two ways to plant the tomato plants: either on bare ground or on a plastic mulch, which can help with weed control.

Once the plants are established, they are tied to stakes. This keeps the fruit off the ground, leading to better quality fruit. This is another job for the farm workers since each plant must be tied individually.

The next step is pruning. In mid to late June, each plant is hand pruned to ensure there are vigorous growing shoots. That will allow for higher quality and larger tomatoes.

Throughout the growing season, calcium nitrate is applied close to the roots of the plants. Nitrogen is a growth aid and calcium improves fruit quality.

There are a number of pests that can harm the tomatoes. To protect the plant, insecticides are added to the transplant water to start the process. Farmers keep an eye on the weather and other conditions to determine how to protect the crop. As select times, more insecticide is applied as well as fungicides. The disease known as Late Blight can absolutely devastate a field, so a spray is regularly applied to prevent problems. As with other crops, this can be expensive, so the farmers analyze the need carefully before applying any crop protectants.

Harvesting tomatoes is done by hand. Each plant could be picked up to a dozen times and the fruit keeps ripening. As one field stops producing, the pickers move on to the next.

I’ve described a number of jobs that are done by farm workers. Russell Farms, like many other operations, participates in the H2A program. These are workers who are interviewed and contracted to be here for a certain length of time. Many of them are from Mexico or Jamaica. That program would be would take an entire article to explain.

Where are these tomatoes marketed? Many go to wholesalers in Buffalo for resale to grocery stores and restaurants. Some go to the Mid Atlantic region. Still others go to other farmers to sell at farmers markets or fruit stands.

Has your school or group has signed up to have a farmer read “Tomatoes for Neela” to your young people? Local farmers will be participating in the program throughout March. There is still time to sign up by emailing

If there’s another crop you’d like to learn about, let me know. You can reach me at the winery, 716-778-7001, or by email

Margo Sue Bittner, a.k.a. Aggie Culture, has been involved in Niagara County agriculture for 40 years. She’s had experience in dairy farming, fruit production and, as the proprietor of the Winery at Marjim Manor, wine agri-tourism. Ask her any question about local agriculture and if she doesn’t know the answer herself, she knows who to get it from.

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