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11/28/2004

Blest under glass

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

FORT LUPTON — Signs of the nationwide tomato shortage are popping up locally.

Signs like “serving tomatoes only when requested” have appeared at some local fast-food places, and others warn customers that “some produce may be temporarily unavailable.”

But the shortage certainly hasn’t meant a slowdown in business for SunBlest Farms LLC, located just outside of Fort Lupton on the eastern plains.

Winter production is about 750,000 pounds a week, according to plant officials. That’s compared with 1.2 million to 1.5 million weekly during the summer.

“Every day...I’d say about 150,000 pounds a day. It’s close (to that),” said Luis Gomez, SunBlest’s packhouse manager.

With 80 acres “under glass” — 40 here at its Fort Lupton facility and another 40 at its greenhouses in Brush, SunBlest is the biggest tomato producer in the state of Colorado, according to Colorado Department of Agriculture Lihn Truong.

“SunBlest is the largest by far; everybody else is small,” said Truong.

While Colorado in 2003 was third in the nation for production of carrots and fifth in production of sunflowers and potatoes, tomatoes don’t even show up on the overall national rankings list compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

But it is a different story when it comes to greenhouse tomatoes.

A 1998 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that Colorado was tops in the nation in terms of greenhouse tomatoes, ahead of California and Florida. The value to Colorado’s economy that year: $34 million.

SunBlest ships all over Colorado, south to Texas, north to Michigan and east to North Carolina.

All of the company’s packing and shipping are done at its Fort Lupton plant, which is also where the company’s “cluster” tomatoes are grown.

Usually clumped in fours and still connected by the vine, these are the types you see in the red mesh bags in the produce section at King Soopers.

“The facility in Brush grows what we call beefsteak tomatoes — or single tomatoes,” said Travis Bain, sales manager for SunBlest. “The kind you slice.”

The beefsteak is the kind of tomato preferred by Safeway, Bain said. Costco is another large client in Colorado, as is Whole Foods.

SunBlest even has an exclusive deal with King Soopers in this state for a particular type of tomato — a “jumbo-grape” variety called the “flavorino” that’s “real sweet,” said Bain.

“We made a commitment to (King Soopers) that we supply (them) with the flavorinos,” said Bain. “Any others that we do we take out of state.”

Bain said that while the nation’s shortage has meant additional business for SunBlest, it hasn’t necessarily translated to an increase in profits.

“There’s definitely been an uptick,” Bain said. “The thing that we have to find is that balance, because we do have year-round customers.”

SunBlest sells about 80 percent of its tomatoes directly to retailers, and the other 20 percent to wholesalers.

While there have been stories of some wholesalers charging double due to the shortage, Bain said SunBlest is still trying to keep prices “fair” to its customers.

SunBlest has roughly 700 plants in its 40 acres of greenhouse here, with each plant reaching a length of 30 to 40 feet.

The stalks from each plant reach up to 9 feet high, pulled skyward on a string by a device called a “bobbin.”

This time of year, heating pipes running along the top and bottom of the plants work to make sure the plants stay warm and the ceilings don’t let any snow accumulate, and an intricate feeding system releases nutrients onto the plants as needed during the day and night.

The computer system controlling the feeding is decidedly high-tech, while the plants are pollinated by good, old-fashioned bumblebees.

“It is a very lazy bee,” said Bain. “It will stay very close to home. So while we’re venting and so forth very few of them will escape. They’ve got everything they need right here.”

About 350 people are employed at SunBlest, Bain said, split, more or less, equally between the two facilities. At Fort Lupton the company produces two crops a year, one in summer and one in winter. They greenhouses could grow more, he said, but maintaining quality is the company’s No. 1 goal.

SunBlest produces about 40 million pounds every year, with average shipments — a semi-truck load with nearly 3,000 cases — leaving Fort Lupton up to 15 times a day during the peak summer period.

Each season, most of the company’s crop is already spoken for, with commitments in place to both its retail and wholesale customers. But with a shortage across the country, and people searching out sources that are different than who they usually deal with, it’s likely that when tomato supplies return to normal that SunBlest might find itself with some new customers.

“You usually do have a shortage in the wintertime, with weather conditions and so forth, but this year is definitely more severe,” Bain said. “It’s definitely a little out of the ordinary.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at
tkindelspire@times-call.com.