The End of Greenhouse Tomatoes in Sheffield and Avon

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History of the greenhouse industry in Avon and Sheffield

One of the horror stories of globalization began on December 19, 1989. At that time, there were about 80 acres of tomatoes grown under glass in Sheffield and Avon.

A devastating freeze hit Florida on December 19, 1989. The Florida tomato crop was destroyed. The gourmet greenhouse tomato crop in Sheffield and Avon was not ready for harvest.

The Florida farmers scrambled to replant. Typically they would stagger their fields so that the tomatoes would not ripen all at the same time. But, because of the frost, they replanted all their tomatoes at one time.

After December 19, 1989, there were no Florida tomatoes, and the local tomatoes were not ready for harvest. Cleveland area grocery stores began importing Mexican tomatoes at $2.50 per pound, and then selling them at $2.99 a pound. At this high price, sales were limited and profits dismal.

Meanwhile, farmers in Sheffied and Avon were borrowing money to pay the gas bills to heat their greenhouses. These loans were made as personal loans, pledging everything that a farmer owned.

The replanted Florida tomatoes hit the market in a flood by March 1, 1990. The Florida farmers were getting 25 cents a pound. It cost the farmers of Sheffied and Avon 75 cents per pound to produce their greenhouse gourmet tomatoes.

The fate of local greenhouse farming lay in the hands of the grocers. If the grocers had sold the Florida tomatoes under $1.00 per pound, the excess supply would have been used up, and the price of Florida tomatoes would have risen.

The grocers made a fateful decision. In order to make up for the low profits from tomato sales during the first quarter of 1990, they kept the price at $1.99 per pound, while buying the Florida tomatoes at 25 cents per pound. Sales were not high enough to relieve the price pressure of the tomato glut, and the price obtained by the farmers stayed at 25 cents per pound. The farmers of Sheffield and Avon were losing money on every tomato they sold.

A grower wrote: "I found myself with a 6-figure personal debt and no way to sell my tomatoes. One night, during these dark days, I woke up about 3:00 am after a vivid dream that the tomatoes in our packing room were exploding. The dream was so compelling that I got out of bed at 3 am and drove to the greenhouse. There was nothing wrong with the tomatoes.

The next morning I learned that the largest grower in the area had committed suicide. Worried that this kind of disaster could happen again and that I could lose my home, I got out of the greenhouse business."

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History of the greenhouse industry in Avon and Sheffield

Driving along Detroit Road today, one would scarcely realize that a few decades ago North Ridge was home to a thriving "Hot House" Tomato Industry that produced upwards of 2,500 tons of tomatoes each year, valued at over $5,000,000. In fact, the Cleveland Plain Dealer (April 9, 1972) referred to our area as the "Greenhouse Capital of America," while Gasco News (Summer 1967) went so far as to recognize northeastern Ohio as the "Greenhouse Capital of the World."

It all started at Sheffield in 1927 when John Hoag and his son Ellis (Bud) initiated the greenhouse industry by placing 2.2 acres of farmland under glass at the southeast corner of the Village. Hoag's original greenhouse was composed of seven interconnected houses, each 411 feet long and varying from 32 to 36 feet wide. In 1937-1938 Hoag added an additional six houses, bringing the total glass-covered area to just over 4 acres.

The sandy soils of North Ridge proved ideal for growing tomatoes and gourmet cucumbers in greenhouses. After Word War II, several other farmers along the Ridge encased many acres under glass. By the late 1970s, ten growers [in Sheffield] had approximately 24 acres in greenhouse production.

The new greenhouses were typically 32 to 36 feet wide by 330 feet long. Walter McAllister (2.6 acres) was the first of the new generation of growers, followed by John Laskin (0.7 acre), Tom Wolfe (3 acres), Ed Peterson (0.8 acre), Gene Riegelsberger (2 acres), Bob Hiltabiddle (1.8 acres), Charles & Bill DeChant (3.2 acres), David Hawley (4 acres), and Wesley Walter (1.5 acres).

The annual greenhouse tomato production took place in two cycles. Seeds would normally be started in hotbeds in late October or November and by late December or January seedlings could be planted in greenhouse rows from 160 to 200 feet long.

The tomato harvest would begin between Valentine's and St. Patrick's Day. This first picking would typically yield approximately 15,000 to 18,000 baskets per acre (each basket weighted about 8 lbs). The expired plants, up to 18 feet in length, would be pulled out in July, the ground sterilized to kill any fungus or weed seeds, and the second cycle would begin.

Large boilers were used to produce the steam for the sterilization process. Farm ponds, and later (1960s) city water from Elyria [and Avon Lake], were used to supply the millions of gallons of water required for irrigation and sterilization. City water proved to be superior to pond water, especially in reducing boiler-clogging problems.

The second harvest generally lasted from late September to Thanksgiving. Lower sunlight levels for the second picking resulted in small yields, about 6,000 to 9,000 baskets per acre. Under ideal conditions, a grower could expect to gross over $100,000 per acre if tomatoes were being retailed at $1.00/lb.

Soil testing was unknown in the early stages of the industry before the Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) at Wooster implemented nutrient-level tests in both the soil and in plant tissues. The introduction of water-soluble fertilizers contributed to greater yields, from the late 1920s to the 1970s tomato production more than doubled.

To reduce bacterial and fungal contamination, growers switched to a mulch containing peanut hulls, as compared to straw and animal manure that had been used for many years.

Another innovation of the mid-1960s was a special generating unit that burned a mixture of natural gas and air to produce carbon dioxide, which enriched the greenhouse atmosphere speeding photosynthesis and increasing plant growth and tomato production.

Research identified carbon dioxide (CO2) as the most limiting factor in the growth of greenhouse crops. Normal atmospheric conditions of 300 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 were found to be limiting, while 1,500 to 2,000 ppm produced the most optimal growth.

The greenhouse growers in Sheffield, Avon, and communities to the east belonged to a cooperative association in Berea, Ohio known as the Greenhouse Vegetables Packing Company. Growers would truck their produce to this facility where it would be sorted, graded, and packed for distribution to markets.

Starting in 1981, growers would load their tomatoes and cucumbers into 30-lb. tubs that were color coded to identify the particular greenhouse where the produce was grown. At peak production, approximately 90 greenhouse growers in northeastern Ohio belonged to the association.

Another organization from downtown Cleveland, known as the Cleveland Growers Marketing Company handled the sales and distribution of the tomato crop. In 1971 these two organizations merged. Several local growers, including Bud Hoag, Tom Wolfe, and Bob Hiltabiddle, served as officers in these organizations.

A concern was proper pollination of the tomato blossoms, clusters of 3 to 7 yellow flowers, each about 1 inch across. In the greenhouse, where natural wind pollination was not possible, it had to be effected by either shaking plants once a day or using a mechanical vibrator. Overwatering could also be a problem, which was overcome by using drip irrigation methods.

However, the weather could be the worst enemy. On June 8, 1953 a devastating tornado hit the Sheffield greenhouses -- 75% of Hoag's Greenhouses was destroyed. Because of the potential of tiny glass shards in the tomatoes, the entire crop had to be destroyed.

Adversity can bring out the best in people; the next day growers and friends from all over northeastern Ohio arrived with tools in hand to begin the task of rebuilding the greenhouses. Several returned to work nights glazing the greenhouses.

In December 1989 a killing frost in Florida destroyed that state's tomato crop. Growers there scrambled to replant, resulting in a glut of Florida tomatoes later in the year. Also, Mexican grown tomatoes were being imported and sold at prices below the cost of growing tomatoes locally.

Many growers found themselves in debt, some in Sheffield were unable to pay back loans as high as $300,000 without selling off their property to developers. Tragically, three northeastern Ohio growers attempted suicide and two succeeded. One by one the growers were put out of business, Hoag, the oldest greenhouse in Sheffield, closed in 1991,

Even in 1990 it was becoming clear that oil dollars sent to the Middle East were coming back at us as bullets and bombs. From the point of view of American security, which was better? Buy oil from the Arabs to bring tomatoes to Cleveland from Mexico and Florida? or, use cooking gas (methane) produced in the United States to grow tomatoes under glass in Sheffield and Avon? America chose the wrong, globalized path, weakening our security and destroying a vibrant local industry.

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