First Picks season in Leamington, ON – the time of year when our team starts picking thousands of pounds of fresh produce in our Ontario greenhouses to ship to your favorite local stores!
Our entire operation becomes a flurry of activity as we start to pick the first fresh veggies of the season – from Growers to Crop Workers to Line Leads (and everyone in-between), our entire team is functioning in high gear to bring Ontario-grown Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cucumbers from our farm to your table.
We’ve asked some of our expert Growers to answer a handful of the most frequently asked questions about First Picks season in Ontario, as well as explain why it’s such an exciting time of year for our team – find their answers below!
First Picks – Our Most Frequently Asked Questions
What is First Picks season and when does it happen?
First Picks season is the time during our regular season when we pick our first ripened Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cucumbers.
Depending on the location, First Picks season takes place at different times of the year. In our Ontario greenhouses (that do not have HPS lights), First Picks season takes place for 2-3 weeks in the month of March. In our Ohio greenhouse, First Picks season takes place throughout the month of September.
In our newest Ontario greenhouse, set to start growing the first week of May 2019, we are expecting First Picks season to start in mid-June. This means that our team will be picking Tomatoes in this state-of-the-art greenhouse from mid-June until late next spring!
How long does it take to get to our first picks of the season?
For Pepper plants, it takes approximately 11-12 weeks from planting to reach our first harvest of Peppers.
For Tomato plants, it takes approximately 8-9 weeks from planting to reach our first harvest of Tomatoes.
For Long English Cucumber plants, it takes approximately 4 weeks from planting to reach our first harvest, and for Mini Cucumber plants, it only takes about 2 weeks!
How do you know when to start picking the first Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cucumbers of the season?
For Tomato and Pepper plants, our Growers know when to start the first harvest of a new season when they start seeing fruit ripening to full color throughout the greenhouse. As soon as our team sees bright Red, Orange, and Yellow fruits peeking out from among the green leaves, it’s time to get into the rows and start picking!
Cucumbers are a special case since they are green when they are fully ripened. Many people assume a Cucumber’s length is the largest determining factor for knowing when it needs to be picked, but really, a Cucumber’s diameter is most important! Our Growers use a special tool, a plastic ring, to measure for a standard diameter. If a Cucumber’s diameter matches that standard measurement, it is ready to pick!
How big are the plants when First Pick season arrives?
When we find ourselves in First Picks season, our Pepper plants are between 5 to 6 ½ feet tall, depending on the variety. By the end of the season, our Pepper plants will triple this height and tower over us at 15 feet!
At this time of the season, our Tomato plants are roughly 16 ½ feet tall – most of them are just about to reach the aircraft cables that run horizontally across the length of the greenhouse. As the Tomato plants grow even taller throughout the season, we will have to start lowering the strings they are clipped to (since our plants’ height will exceed the height of our greenhouses, the plant has no more room to grow upward).
When we begin picking in our Cucumber greenhouse, our Long English Cucumber plants are roughly 8 feet tall, and our Mini Cucumber plants are roughly 5 feet tall.
What is the proper way to pick a Tomato, Pepper, or Cucumber?
Not all Tomato varieties are picked the same way. For larger Tomato types like Beefsteak Tomatoes and Tomatoes-on-the-Vine, Crop Workers use special scissors to cleanly cut a cluster of Tomatoes from the main plant stalk.
Smaller Tomato types like Cherry or Grape Tomatoes are plucked individually off the calyx (the star-shaped “hat” on top of the Tomato beneath the stem) – unless, of course, we are picking Cherry Tomatoes-on-the-Vine. In that case, we use the same type of special harvesting scissors to cleanly cut off the entire cluster from the vine.
Our tiniest members of the NatureFresh™ Farms Tomato family, Tomberry® Tomatoes, require a different method of harvesting from all our other Tomato types. Since so many Tomatoes grow on one bushel, our Crop Workers cut off an entire bushel of Tomberry® Tomatoes, leaves and all, and let it dry out. Once the leaves and stem are completely dry, we can simply shake off our tiny Tomatoes, pack them up, and ship them to a grocery store near you!
The same harvesting method is used for all Peppers, no matter their variety. Our Crop Workers use a small harvesting knife to make a clean cut that is flush to the plant’s stem, on what we call the “knuckle” of the plant.
We use what we call a picking knife for Long English Cucumbers, which is a knife with a hook style blade on it that slides onto the fingers of our Crop Workers. This knife allows us to cut the stem while grabbing the Cucumber. We try to make this cut about ¼ inch from the Cucumber so that ¼ inch of the stem is left on the end of the fruit.
Mini Cucumbers are picked similarly to smaller Tomatoes – our Crop Workers simply pluck them off individually!
What are the most important things to keep in mind during First Picks season?
There are many important things that our Growers need to keep in mind during First Picks season, including the collection of accurate data and the proper feeding of nutrients to our plants.
We use picking carts in our greenhouses to transport our products from the greenhouse to the warehouse for packing, and each cart is labelled digitally and weighed once filled by our Crop Workers. Our team must remember to properly calibrate our PRIVA scales at the beginning of the First Picks season – when we do this, we can collect accurate data about how much produce we have picked since Day 1. The accuracy of the weights we collect is extremely important because we use this data to help us select the varieties we grow in the coming years.
Our Growers also need to pay close attention to the nutrients being fed to our plants through our nutrient water. For example, potassium plays a major role in influencing ripening and color development for Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cucumbers. This means that, when First Picks season is about to begin, our Growers need to ensure that potassium levels are high enough in the nutrient water to ensure top-quality ripening and full coloring take place within the crop.
What does the NatureFresh™ Farms team enjoy most about First Picks season?
One thing that we all enjoy during First Pick season is the constant flurry of activity – everyone knows their role and flourishes as we all work toward a common goal. Once First Picks season hits, everyone in our operation is working together to deliver fresh and healthy produce to stores across North America, and with so much acreage to cover, that’s a big task that requires all hands on deck from our team.
For our Growers especially, we also look forward to our plants reaching a more mature stage of development. One of our Growers explained the first 8 to 12 weeks of the season as taking care of a teenager – by the time we start our first harvest , our Growers are ready to get the plants in-balance and into a more mature, manageable state for the remainder of the season!
Exciting Times Ahead
With hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce picked during First Picks season alone, we have a lot of freshness to look forward to for the rest of the 2019 season in Ontario – including a brand-new facility starting to grow in May!