During a season when tomatoes are just a twinkle in most gardeners' eyes, Dave Nance proudly parades his ruby-red crop.
Cultivating 1,000 tomato plants in two Grants Pass greenhouses, Nance plans early, starting seeds in December so he can bring tomatoes to local farmers markets by April — months before anyone else. His hydroponic crop expiring around the Fourth of July, Nance has cashed in before the "tomato wars" of summer commence.
"(When) you can't hardly give a tomato away," Nance says.
The strategy has helped Nance, 49, keep his business afloat for the past 13 years. As soon as tomatoes are done, Nance sows English cucumbers, which grow so fast that he can return to market in less than two months. He rounds out his produce selection with lettuce and basil, as well as garlic and onions grown outside in an 1,800-square-foot garden plot.
"It's kind of a goofy, little, niche thing," Nance says, adding that he's known locally as "the tomato man."
But customers see nothing goofy in the availability of local tomatoes so early in the year.
"The product sells itself," Nance says. "People are real hungry this time of year for these tomatoes."
A mere hour after opening his stall at Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass growers markets, Nance often sells his entire load of nightshades. His record, Nance says, is moving 600 pounds of tomatoes in less than two hours at a single Saturday market in Grants Pass. At one Grants Pass appearance, Nance's stall saw 125 people in line.
"One lady says 'I knew I shouldn't have taken a shower!' " Nance laughs.
Raising his tomato price to $3 per pound from last year's $2.89 was necessary given increased costs to heat his greenhouses, Nance says. He expects some people will be very skeptical of the price tag. In that case, he may offer a freebie, which usually leads to a lucrative purchase the next week. But those in the know hardly bat an eyelash while opening their wallets, he says.
"A lot of people, they say, 'I don't care what you charge, I'm buying 'em anyway.' "
Nance acknowledges that tastier backyard tomatoes certainly are to be had, but his come "pretty close" flavor-wise. Eschewing heirloom varieties, Nance grows a Dutch hybrid called Match, developed specifically for greenhouse growing conditions. The tomato "has a good beefsteak flavor to it," that people typically associate with the fruit, Nance says.
While not certified as organic, Nance's produce is never sprayed. If a bug infestation breaks out, Nance says he unleashes other bugs to eat the bad ones. He fertilizes using a combination of organic and synthetic products. This greenhouse savvy comes on the heels of nine years Nance spent living in Hawaii, where he grew orchids and other exotic flowers.
"I figured I'd come up here and adapt," he says.
Six years ago, Rogue Valley residents may have purchased Nance's tomatoes at Ray's markets and Harry and David Country Village, but Nance lamented bringing his "seconds" to farmers markets after wholesaling and has since focused solely on his own retail venture, which grew out of peddling bedding plants and hanging baskets.
"I decided the real money was in produce," Nance says.
" ... People come back every week because they want fresh produce."
Try Nance's tomatoes, including green ones, in the following recipes.
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.