Across-the-ocean assistance

Across-the-ocean assistance

Pete and Donna Gurr of American Samoa use CropKing’s Five Day Intensive Workshop as a jumping-off point for their tomato operation.

November 28, 2017
GIE Media Horticulture Group

Pete and Donna Gurr live on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, where temperatures hover around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and humidity rises beyond 80 percent. But in the second week of November, they visited rural Lodi, Ohio, where they saw that area’s first snow of 2017.

When the snow fell, the husband and wife had just completed CropKing’s first Five Day Intensive Workshop, where the couple learned about growing hydroponic produce in a greenhouse setting. As it turns out, neither the sweltering heat and heavy rains of American Samoa nor the frigid cold of Northeast Ohio allow consistent fresh tomato production year-round, but a controlled environment does.

Pete, who retired as deputy director of the Department of Agriculture in American Samoa, always farmed his own crops on the side — some hydroponic and some more traditional. He performed extensive research before he decided to travel nearly 7,000 miles for the workshop with Donna, a retired elementary school principal and school district curriculum director. Pete knew growing tomatoes — his primary current focus — in a greenhouse prevents cracking, and he knew about CropKing for decades. While he followed other people and business in hydroponics, he says, “somehow, the arrow was always pointing at this place.”

In their five days working with CropKing, Pete and Donna planted seeds, and they saw tomato plants with 40-foot vines, not the five or six-foot vines Pete had been used to growing. “On the islands, if the nutrient gets dirty or somehow, it’s contaminated, you lose all your crop,” he says. “With this bato bucket system, individually, you would just lose one plant.” From pH to EC to pests and disease control, Matthew Kispert, horticulturist at CropKing; Jeff Balduff, technical sales and services associate; and Rita Norton, greenhouse manager, all played a pivotal role in expanding the Gurr’s knowledge of hydroponics. The couple has chosen to set up a two-bay, gutter-connected, 5,600-square-foot CropKing greenhouse back home.

Unlike the two-day grower’s workshop that CropKing offers, the five-day course is commensurate with experience, and the Gurrs have it. They own Island Flowers by Liana, a tropical florist named after their daughter. Liana and her three brothers — Melesio, Pita and Tamiano — have all held a role in the business since they were young. Pete has also grown some crops that are more traditional for the region, such as taro and bananas. While Donna currently runs the florist operation, she sees herself becoming more involved with the produce operation, which will have a separate name.

The Gurrs plan to attempt construction of their new greenhouse operation on their own, and then likely receive further on-site assistance from Kispert or Balduff, Donna says. The family is also considering applying for a low-interest loan from the USDA-Farm Service Agency.

In American Samoa, there is a need for higher-quality, lower-cost produce, Donna says. “The people that have tried to grow outdoors have been unsuccessful,” Donna says. “It’s a hit and miss — you might get 10 percent of the crop or something. That’s a lot of energy wasted. We wanted to provide high-quality, lower-cost fresh produce for our people and not have it be picked weeks and weeks or even over a month of it being shipped. By the time it gets to our shores, it’s all mushy.” By continuing to involve their children and hiring more people, she says, the Gurrs will be circulating money and helping their local community.

The family aims to start growing with a Foronti variety beefsteak tomato. Beyond that, Pete is thinking about future crops and more space. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “We will get this first unit to start with, to get an understanding, and then we will take off from there.”

Photo: Patrick Williams