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Tiny Colorado farm excels under glass

In Morgan County, Colo., many farms contain thousands of acres worked by a few people.

Under 20 acres, Brushco Farms employs 70. The crop is hydroponic tomatoes; their production ranks among the best in the country. Tours are strictly prohibited, but Western Farmer Stockman was invited inside to view the operation.

In any farm operation, management is the key. If Brushco Farms has a secret weapon it is Belgium-born Leo De Groof, senior grower and manager. “I was born in a greenhouse,” he jokes. More seriously De Groof adds, “Actually, I was born in a small house next to the greenhouse. Within a week my mother was packing me with her as she worked among the plants. I am happiest in the greenhouse.”

When the European greenhouse industry collapsed in the mid-1990s, De Groof sought employment in the United States. His uncanny abilities were immediately recognized. “I was hired in the first minutes of my first interview,” he says. “They didn’t want me to go home for my clothes.”

Key Points

• Brushco Farms in Colorado grows hydroponic tomatoes.

• Grower believes in maximum production with the least amount of labor.

• Final vine length of the plants reaches to about 34 feet.

Maximize production

De Groof’s objectives for the glass-encased farm are common to all farmers. “My goal is maximum production with the least amount of labor,” he begins. “We will produce over 9 million pounds of tomatoes this year,” De Groof says, adding “220,000 plants will be picked up to three times a week, May through December. Thirty-eight full-time employees work in the growing area. Another 40 seasonal employees sort, grade and package up to 12 semiloads of tomatoes per week.”

Twenty percent of their output is purchased locally; the balance shipped to East Coast distributors. The difference between a backyard tomato plot and De Groof’s plants are staggering. Each gently curving giant grows from 12 to 18 inches per week suspended by adjustable strings attached to an overhead framework. Final vine length is about 34 feet. Grafting allows two plants to share one root system. Six plants are rooted in a coco fiber mat smaller than most bed pillows.

When De Groof returned from Belgium with his clothes in 1997, he brought much more. Making the long trek to an unfamiliar land were wife Mariane, and daughters Elke and Famke. Mariane is Brushco’s office manager. While not born in a greenhouse, she had served as CEO of the family’s greenhouse operation in Belgium. As with all husband-wife teams, protocol is important. “Leo has seniority in knowledge,” she says. Famke is the plant’s food safety officer.

Completing the team is assistant grower Lucio Vazquez. Beginning in the strawberry fields of California, Vazquez has learned the greenhouse business from the ground up.

“All of us are part of a plan put in place by Leo. My job is to see that plan is carried out,” Vazquez says. “The mutual admiration and respect at Brushco Farms seems to be as resilient as the huge plants that make it all possible.”

Hodgson writes from Brush, Colo.

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HAPPIEST AMONG HIS TOMATO PLANTS: Leo De Groof, Brushco Farms senior grower and manager, proves the point that If you love what you do, you will be good at it. His Brush, Colo., greenhouse is among the most productive and profitable per acre in the country. Photo by Sue Hodgson

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.