PILOT MOUNTAIN — JEEM Farms is a family business that began with one greenhouse and a dream to produce fresh, delicious-tasting tomatoes during winter months. Since then, it has expanded the variety of tomatoes offered, added four new greenhouses, and have reached a larger customer base.
More than three years ago, Michelle and Justin McKinney, along with Michelle’s father, Larry Masten, opened JEEM Farms in the Pinnacle area and began growing and selling tomatoes October through July. They now have around 1,800 plants growing in greenhouses during months when fresh, ripe, great-tasting tomatoes were once hard to find.
JEEM Farms is located on a century farm — it has been in the family for more than 100 years. They are USDA GAP certified, which is a designation for farms with excellent agricultural practices.
Masten loves growing tomatoes, and this is apparent in the way he handles the plants. “The plant tells you what it needs. I am always in contact with all the plants. You have to work with them and handle them on a daily basis. It is quite personal.”
The first greenhouse contained a type of beefsteak tomato plant that has been growing about one month, since Jan. 15, and, according to Masten, they are now beginning to bloom with the bright, yellow tomato flowers.
The other four greenhouses, which are the new additions, have plants in different stages of production, the first containing ripe tomatoes of several types. Masten said that with the addition of the new greenhouses, they are now offering more types and even heirloom varieties — both large and “mini ‘looms,” which are the smaller version of heirloom tomatoes.
They produce several kinds of grape tomatoes, Beefsteak tomatoes, Black Cherry, Black Plum, Roma, Mr. Stripey, Green Zebra, Red Zebra, and more.
The plants began as seeds, planted in small trays and germinated, then transplanted to grow pots before being placed into the soil in the greenhouses. This process takes place October through July, then the plants are cut, everything is pulled out of the greenhouses, the soil is prepped, and they start again with new plants in August.
Inside the first of the new greenhouses, the smell of the tomato plants is intoxicating.
With a chuckle, Masten said, “I can’t smell the tomato plants anymore, but I have customers who come in here, especially women, who I think can smell it better than men, and they just go crazy about the smell — they love it.”
According to Masten, tomato plants are essentially self-pollinating. He illustrated this point by touching a bright, yellow tomato flower, which released its pollen; tiny granules fell on the rest of the flowers below.
“Bees do not like tomatoes. Bumblebees are the only flying insects that will pollinate the tomato plants.”
Masten said that tomatoes are first cousins to tobacco plants, and the “beautiful red dirt” that helped tobacco to thrive in North Carolina is essential for the growing of the tomatoes at JEEM Farms.
“This red dirt is full of micro-nutrients, but we have to replenish the soil because, like a plant, it is a living thing. Nature is one big, evolving circle. One thing dies so another can live and it is the same with the soil. You have to replenish it on a regular basis, but we use natural products only.”
The farms in the area, including JEEM Farms, have benefited from the rich, red, clay dirt, which could be seen in the greenhouses under the plastic sheets, which allow the plants to retain the most moisture.
Each tomato plant grows upward, some as high as 12 to 15 feet, supported by strings hanging from a line above each row.
They use no organic animal waste, such as manure, on their plants, which Masten said can be toxic for tomatoes. Instead, a special blend of all-natural fertilizer is used to “feed” the tomatoes, which are watered and fed through an underground irrigation system.
The feed system is automated and timed so they know exactly how many hours of water the plants are getting and as the temperature increases, Masten said they adjust the levels to keep up with the plants.
The greenhouses are heated with propane, which is a more constant and quick type of heat, suitable for greenhouse growing.
According to Masten, most tomatoes are indeterminate, which means that they will keep growing and growing, unlike some plants that have a certain height they reach before they stop growing. Because of this, the tomato plants have to be pruned, in order to keep the essential nutrients flowing to the fruit of the plant. Many of the tomato plants almost touch the top of the greenhouse.
Now operating in their fourth year, Masten said the first year was trial and error, the second year was a little better, and the third year helped them learn what to expect, which allowed the family to expand the business.
“We are always learning and even though we now know what to expect, the plants are alive, and we must always tend to them.”
Michelle McKinney, Masten’s daughter, owns the business and helps in the greenhouses. She also handles marketing and customer relations, as well as running the web page and the Facebook page.
Masten’s main job is taking care of the tomato plants and handling the growing process: “It’s a seven-day-a-week job.”
Several customers stopped by the greenhouse to pick up tomatoes Friday afternoon, with one saying the tomatoes were so clean and delicious that she had a hard time keeping herself from eating them all on the drive home.
One couple who stopped by, from nearby Siloam, enjoy them so much they have become regular customers, stopping by at least one or two times a week.
Many customers stop by the greenhouses to buy tomatoes on a daily basis, but they also have standing weekly orders for tomatoes, as well as orders from wholesalers, direct marketing buyers, restaurants and several grocery store chains. In addition, they sell at many farmers markets in the Piedmont.
The family is in the planning stages to add new greenhouses, but Masten said they are going to stick with tomatoes: “I believe if you find one thing you do well, you stick with it. When you start diversifying, that takes you away from your original intention.”
JEEM Farms is located in Pinnacle. Signs directing customers to the greenhouses are placed on Shoals Road and Pilot Church Road, off of N.C. 268 in Pilot Mountain. They are at the foot of Pilot Mountain, which provides beautiful scenery in addition to tomatoes.
For more information and detailed directions, visit the web page at www.jeemfarms.com or call Michelle McKinney at 710-5301 or Larry Masten at 710-3783. JEEM Farms is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Sundays by appointment.