Former Chicago futures trader Joe Vanderbosch traded his finance career for a hydroponic tomato farm. So far, he’s deep in the red.
By Al Parker | Sept. 30, 2017
Any way you slice it, Joe Vanderbosch’s hydroponic tomato farm is a growing enterprise.
At his TLC Farms about five miles northwest of Suttons Bay, Vanderbosch talks about his 1,500 tomato plants with the same bright-eyed zeal that a first-time parent displays when bragging about their newborn.
“The flavor is really what distinguishes my tomatoes from those raised in the dirt in Mexico or somewhere else,” he explained as he takes a visitor on a stroll through one of his two greenhouses where the bright green tomatoes grow in clusters on vines as thick as a man’s thumb.
Hydroponic farming involves growing crops without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. At TLC Farms, the plants are rooted in perlite, a medium that is then watered through a series of tubing with nutrients that includes calcium, iron, magnesium and others in a “secret recipe.” On a strict schedule, the 1,500 tomato plants are watered for two minutes every 30 minutes.
“We grow three types of tomatoes: Beefsteak, Roma, and Cherry. About 80 percent of our plants are Beefsteak, with Roma and Cherry each about 10 percent.”
While his main crop is tomatoes, Vanderbosch also raises three types of lettuce — bibb, red leaf, and green leaf — along with basil in his greenhouses. And he has two more greenhouses that he plans to open over the next two years, adding more space for 1,400–1,500 Beefsteak tomatoes, perhaps some heirloom varieties, and lettuce.
The Beefsteak is one of the largest tomatoes, with some varieties weighing in at over 2 pounds. They grow in a rainbow of colors, from vibrant red to pale yellow to purple-black. Rather than maintaining a spherical shape as it develops, a Beefsteak often takes on a kidney-bean shape, spreading out on the sides. The Beefsteak holds together well when cut, making it perfect for slicing and eating raw. Many culinary experts say it’s the ideal sandwich tomato. It can be picked while still green and ripen on a counter, but for maximum flavor and texture, it should be allowed to ripen on the vine. Under no circumstances should a tomato be refrigerated; the perfect temperature is room temperature, between 55° and 70°F.
With his impressive knowledge of tomatoes and hydroponic farming, you might think the 55-year-old Chicago native has been raising these tasty tomatoes for years. But Vanderbosch has only been at it since July when he bought the business from Jim and Toni Beaton.
Before that he had been in finance (cue the Green Acres theme song here) a one-time futures trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, where he bought and sold commodities.
So why does a one-time Cook County wheeler-dealer turn in his fancy suit to become the High Prince of Hydroponic Farming in Leelanau County?
In 2003, Vanderbosch took a financial investing job in Traverse City. “The business began to change in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” he said. “It became less fun, less interesting to me.”
So like a lot of guys with an entrepreneurial bent, Vanderbosch and his wife, Anne Cunningham, began looking into other opportunities. She left an architectural career and is now a Montessori educator at Traverse Area Public Schools. He had a sales background and thought he would find something in that field. “I was really turned off by what I found,” he said. “They expected me to start at the bottom, like a 55-year-old rookie. I decided to look for my own business. I like the outdoors, so I began to look into farming.”
Vanderbosch talked with friends who had been successful in farming and felt comfortable making the career change. Earlier this year, he came close to buying a 35-acre apple orchard in Williamsburg but decided against it when the owner talked about how frost could wipe out 80 percent of his crop in one bad night.
That’s when he focused on the hydroponic tomato operation that is protected against harsh weather, since all the growing is done in the greenhouses between March and October. “I know these plants. This I can do,” he said he thought to himself.
Vanderbosch’s workday begins about 7 a.m. when he leaves his Traverse City home for the farm. He’s usually nervous until he enters the greenhouse and gets a good look around. Then he relaxes.
“When I arrive, I’m like a parent with a new baby, always hoping everything was all right overnight,” he said. “I’m always wondering if the irrigation broke down or if everything is OK.”
Mondays and Thursdays are harvest days. That’s when Vanderbosch, with the help of one hired hand, handpicks up to 500 pounds of tomatoes. On each of those days he will call his customers — mostly restaurants and markets — to see how large an order they need.
Tuscan Bistro’s popular Caprese salad is made with TLC tomatoes and chef Mickey Cannon’s made-in-house mozzarella cheese. Alternating slices of tomato and cheese are plated, then drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and topped with fresh basil. Maple City eatery La Becasse features TLC’s Bibb lettuce in its signature house salad. And burgers at The Cove in Leland are topped with slices of TLC Beefsteaks. Vanderbosch is hoping to get a few more restaurant customers as he expands his sales area.
“It’s cost versus quality,” he explained. “Our tomatoes may cost a little more, but they taste differently. They’re full of flavor. Good chefs know quality when they taste it.”
Sales and deliveries are made on Tuesdays and Fridays, while Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays are devoted to plant maintenance, trimming and repairing any damaged plants.
Vanderbosch also sells tomatoes, lettuce, and a few other crops at the Setterbo Road operation.
“It’s 10- or 12-hour days, seven days a week, but I don’t mind the workload,” said Vanderbosch. “It doesn’t go year-round. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to make a change in their life. I’m happy with my daily routine.”
Like all farming operations, the work is seasonal. The year begins in January when new tomato plants are germinated. About six weeks later, the plants go into the buckets with the perlite medium. The first tomatoes are ready for sale in May and continue into October or very early November if lucky. That means for about four months of the year there is no revenue coming in.
So do any of his Chicago investment buddies ever check in with him?
“Oh yeah, they call me Farmer Joe,” he laughed. “But I’m really happy with my life.”
TLC Farms is located at 4030 Setterbo Rd., in Suttons Bay. Contact the greenhouse at (231) 271-4754.