Parsons Homegrown of Fulton fills a very specific niche, fresh local tomatoes from January through July or August.
Kelley Parsons established her operation in 1994 and it is thriving today.
This year, she is growing three varieties, Favorita, a cherry tomato; Geronimo, a red beefsteak, and Yellow Boy, a yellow beefsteak.
In the early 1990s, Kelley and Tom Parsons were starting their family. Their second child had just been born and Kelley was working full time as an insurance underwriter. She wanted to find a way to make their land generate enough income that she could be at home with her family and while working on insurance for a business based in Mariposa that included a hydroponic greenhouse operation, she found her inspiration.
Her first year, she sold her tomatoes to Oliver’s Market in Cotati. By 1996 or 1997, she became a vendor at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market and at the Healdsburg Farmers Market. Today, she also attends the Windsor Farmers Market and sells to several other markets and restaurants.
Tomato seeds are planted in Parsons’ 5800-square foot greenhouse in September and in a typical season, harvest begins in January. The greenhouse holds exactly 1512 plants, which yield about 1200 pounds of tomatoes a week. Solar panels provide electricity for fans, lights and irrigation and natural gas generates the heat the plants require.
The plants grow in purlite, a volcanic sand that is popped–think popcorn–so that it is light and airy. As a hydroponic operation, water does all the heavy lifting, delivering nutrients to the plants and carrying away waste.
This may sound simple but it isn’t. Hydroponic farming is very precise and intensive. Each week, Parsons uses a recipe to mix the nutrients–some organic, some synthetic–the plants require. There are also several specific procedures that must be carried out either daily or weekly if the tomatoes are to thrive and ripen.
“I can’t go on vacation,” Parsons says, “and if anything is neglected, the greenhouse will quickly go out of control.”
A greenhouse operation does not protect plants from all types of weather. If it rains for several days, humidity can become a problem and, if there is an early heatwave, Parsons must respond quickly. In hot weather, tomatoes don’t want to eat. She must withdraw nutrients quickly and offer only water until temperatures drop.
When it comes to other problems, there are just a few. There are no soil-born diseases, of course, and no gophers. To mitigate potential white fly infestations, Parsons introduces beneficial bugs early in the growing cycle and they keep the fly population in check.
The Parsons also grow grapes. In 2001, they replanted on old vineyard and now sell their 8 1/2 acres of pinot noir to Siduri Wines each year.
Parsons Homegrown began attending the 2013 farmers market at the Wells Fargo Center on both Wednesday and Saturday a couple of weeks ago and will continue to be a vendor until summer tomato season is in full swing.
“I consult with other tomato growers,” she explains, “and wind down when they are hitting their stride.”
If there is still a lot of fruit at this point, Kelley calls in volunteers to help harvest the tomatoes, which she donates to such local organizations as The Living Room and the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
Parsons Homegrown, founded in 1994 and owned and operated by Kelley and Tom Parsons, sells tomatoes to Shelton’s Market and Big John’s Market in Healdsburg, Molsberry’s Market in Santa Rosa, Speers Market in Forestville and to all three Oliver’s Markets. John Ash & Co. and Rosso Pizzeria also buy Parsons tomatoes. The best way to speak with Kelley Parsons is to visit her stall at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market.