TUMALO — Justin Novicky is back in business.
The 42-year-old tomato farmer recently pulled the first crop of ripened fruit from the stalks inside a new, 300-square-foot greenhouse along Cline Falls Highway. The 450 new plants put into five raised beds in April have yielded just a few pounds so far, but more are ripening on the vine. Novicky is optimistic, he said, that his enterprise will pick up where it left off when it moved from 2 acres he previously leased east of Bend.
“We’re the only local vegetable farm that focuses solely on tomatoes,” he said Tuesday. “We feel confident in our ability to do that well. We’re happy with what we’re doing, and we’ll focus strongly on that.”
With eight varieties of tomatoes under cultivation, including a deep-purple variety called the Indigo Rose, developed by Oregon State University, Novicky is looking forward to getting fresh tomatoes onto plates around Central Oregon again soon, he said. Without community support, he said, the farm would have gone under.
For two years, Novicky and his partner Emily Hoy grew tomatoes and other vegetables at the former Vicky’s Farm on Cimarron Drive northeast of the Bend Municipal Airport. Vicky and Wally Roth founded the farm and operated it for seven years before they handed the business over to Novicky and his then-business partner Mike Bradford and moved from the area.
Novicky and Hoy lived on Cimarron Drive while they and Bradford expanded the business to sell to local brewpubs and restaurants, Novicky told The Bulletin in December. Bradford decided to sell the property late last year. Without the funds to purchase it, Novicky and Hoy had to move.
About that time, Brian Jarvis, a sonographer (“I do diagnostic ultrasound, most of what I do is look at pregnant moms and their babies”) read Novicky’s story in The Bulletin, he said. He and his wife, Terese Jarvis, a group saleswoman at Mt. Bachelor, purchased a 9-acre former pig farm at the corner of Marsh Road and Cline Falls Highway in December. They planned to retire there in several years but had no immediate plan for the property.
“I thought, this is a cool thing, what these people are doing, and it’s unfortunate they don’t have an opportunity to continue what they’re doing,” Brian Jarvis said Thursday.
He called Novicky, the two couples met and the Jarvises offered to lease the property to Novicky and Hoy.
Meanwhile, Novicky started a GoFundMe campaign, seeking $30,000 to build another greenhouse at a new location. The campaign, which has raised more than $11,000 thus far, helped fund the greenhouse Novicky built on the Jarvis property with help from friends and family.
“All of this was funded off of community support,” Novicky said. “This isn’t my greenhouse; this is Central Oregon’s greenhouse.”
A neighbor on Cline Falls Highway, Paul Spezza, a general contractor, donated lumber from the partial demolition of the former Skjersaa’s ski and snowboard shop on SW Century Drive in Bend. The wood went into raised beds and the end portions of the greenhouse.
Spezza also bought $555 worth of iron rebar and donated it to Novicky.
The rebar serves as a horizontal frame on which the tomato stalks grow. In exchange, Spezza extracted a promise of tomatoes once Novicky got his feet under him again.
“I’ve been trying to grow tomatoes myself for 30 years. It’s hard,” Spezza said Thursday. “Not many people would try what he’s trying, and he was very nice. He came over and introduced himself, told me what he was doing and was very polite. Not many people do that anymore, come over and introduce themselves.”
Backyard gardeners attest to the difficultly of growing tomatoes in the High Desert. The tricky climate allows only a short growing season and frost can occur nearly any time of year, said Jim Myers, a professor of horticulture at Oregon State University, and Clare Sullivan, an OSU professor of practice and a crop and soil specialist with the OSU Extension Service in Deschutes County.
“The sun is so intense in Central Oregon. You have a lot of sun, but not necessarily the temperatures to go with that sun,” Sullivan said Thursday. “The main problem is the cold. Even your home gardener will put some sort of cover over the tomatoes at some point. If you put them out in June, you might sill have frost.”
The Indigo Rose tomato that Novicky grew from seeds obtained from OSU were developed for nutritional value, Myers said Friday. The purple color comes from the same pigment, anthocyanin, that give blueberries, red cabbage, eggplant and many other plants their color. Developed with genes from two wild relatives of the tomato and unveiled in 2011, the Indigo Rose is high in antioxidants and antimicrobial properties, Myers said.
“After leaving the field, it will not rot for a longer period of time. I like to get the Indigo Rose in the kitchen for two or three weeks after picking it, and it will color up, ripen, and the flavor will improve,” he said. “One of the problems I had with it is people tend to pick it too early and say it tastes like crap.”
Many small, commercial farmers in Central Oregon growing for farmers markets produce tomatoes, but only two, including Novicky, produce them in large quantities, Sullivan said. Strictly speaking, the structure Novicky erected with the help of friends and family is a hoop house rather than a greenhouse.
Ribs of wood planted in 54 concrete footers arch overhead, covered with a translucent plastic. Knife River Corp., a construction materials supplier and contractor with a branch in Tumalo, poured the concrete footers and laid aggregate on the hoop house floor. In addition, the company donated a few hundred dollars to the Novicky GoFundMe campaign, said Chris Doan, Knife River general manager in Tumalo.
“We’re a big part of the community, and we have lots of trucks running through the community, “ he said Thursday. “When we can support a local business, we like to do so.”
Just across U.S. Highway 20 from the Knife River compound in Tumalo, Molly Hughes opened the Tumalo Farm Stand six weeks ago, she said. Novicky provided freshly harvested kale for sale there and Hughes expects to sell Novicky tomatoes, too, she said. Novicky also planted heirloom sweet onions between the tomatoes from seeds he said his great-grandmother brought from Slovakia in 1909 in the hem of her skirt.
“I sell his kale until the tomatoes come in,” Hughes said Thursday. “It’s doing very well, and its been selling for several weeks.”
Novicky is also planning to sell his produce, including eggs from 50 hens on the property, at Central Oregon Locavore, although the Bend grocery store that relies on locally sourced meats and produce is in danger of closing unless it, too, raises enough money this month to keep its doors open.
This year is one of rebuilding, Novicky said. Next year, he plans on erecting another hoop house that will double the space available for growing tomatoes and return the farm to the capacity it had on Cimarron Road, he said.
“This year, we are going to have that percentage that we won’t be making, but, really this year was to let our clients know that we wanted to fight for this,” Novicky said. “We didn’t just want to let this dissolve.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7815, firstname.lastname@example.org