Five College Farms specializes in heirloom tomatoes

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 29, 2018, by Bera Dunau

You’d think that those wanting to eat fresh, locally grown heirloom tomatoes from the Pioneer Valley would be out of luck in the winter. Think again.

“It’s just about having the crop when no one else does,” said Keith Rehbein, who co-owns Five College Farms in Hadley.

Started in 2015, Five College Farms grows heirloom tomatoes in an approximately 52,000-square-foot greenhouse space at 319 River Drive, the former home of Montgomergy Rose, a rose-growing operation.

The owners, Rehbein and Ted Crooker, also own a new Hadley vegan restaurant called Pulse, which gets nearly all of the tomatoes it uses from Five College Farms in its growing season.

“The two of them kind of work together,” Rehbein said.

Rehbein said an inspiration for the farm was his dissatisfaction with the produce he was finding at the grocery store.

“That’s kind of how it started,” he said.

Rehbein currently lives in the Berkshires, but he previously resided in Hadley for more than a decade. That’s why he chose to locate Five College Farms there.

In addition to Pulse and Five College Farms, Rehbein and Crooker are involved in family businesses — asphalt for Crooker and construction for Rehbein.

Arthur Mulyono is Five College Farms’ manager. A native of Southern California and a graduate of Andrews University in Michigan, Mulyono, 29, said that he went into agriculture because he believes that growing nutrient-rich food can help humanity as a whole.

Mulyono characterized Five College Farms as a startup, and said that about eight varieties of tomatoes are grown there. The tomatoes certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Currently Five College Farms has six connected greenhouses. Five are growing heirloom tomatoes, while a sixth now has baby cucumbers in it, after the failure of the tomato crop there this growing season.

The greenhouses are heated by a woodchip boiler, with an oil boiler system in place as a backup. Heat and electricity are major costs for the operation, which features $750,000 worth of LED lights in the greenhouses that allow the farm to grow in the winter. The lights are on 16 hours a day, Rehbein said.

In addition to the crop failure, which was caused by a virus that affected the plants, the farm has had to deal with aphids and russet mites. Even with these challenges, however, Rehbein said that the farm is doing well.

“We’ve still done really well financially,” he said.

Rehbein attributed this to the higher wholesale prices — which can be up to $5 a pound — that the tomatoes fetch.

“The price is substantially more,” he said.

Five College Farms’ harvesting season lasts from October to June. By contrast, other farms that grow indoor tomatoes typically reserve the winter for planting.

“The majority of people are planting,” said Mulyono, saying that these farms’ last harvest is around mid-November.

Mulyono said that the primary competition for Five College Farms comes from Mexico.

“Who do you want to support and where do you want the money to go?” said Mulyono.

Some of the businesses that buy Five College Farms’ tomatoes are Wegmans, Big Y, Whole Foods and River Valley Co-op.

Five College Farms employs about 15 different people, and they can all take home tomatoes for themselves. Facility Manager Jesse Velasquez, however, hasn’t grown tired of eating them.

“My wife mixes it up so they taste different,” said Velasquez.

Rehbein said that Five College Farms will plant carrots outside for the first time this year, as the three-year wait time for being able to grow USDA organic produce in the soil outside will have elapsed.

Rehbein noted that Pulse uses a lot of carrots in its juicing, and that being able grow their own will be an asset.

“We go through a lot of carrots,” he said.

Pulse Café, meanwhile, opened last August in the old Seven Sisters Bistro spot off Route 9. The property previously was the Long Hollow Bison Farm.

The eatery and market serves and sells plant-based foods, including grain-based burgers and wood-fired artisanal pizzas, salads, and a juice bar with smoothies and shakes.