The tomato people
Enchanting towers of vegetables comprise a family farm in Kalispell that’s locally famous for juicy tomatoes and crisp cucumbers.
BENJAMIN ALVA POLLEY
T he Flathead Valley’s growing season is short. But one farmer, Keith Graham, has figured out how to more than double the 120-day season using hydroponics, a method of growing indoors in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution.
Keith, 65, is a fourth-generation grain and cattle rancher originally from Red Deer, Alberta. In 2000, soon after he retired, a friend who had conducted hydroponics projects as a missionary in the Philippines introduced him to the practice. Keith jumped at the opportunity for an interesting new project. By 2006, when Keith moved to the Flathead for milder winters, and to be closer both to his wife’s family in Seattle and Whitefish Mountain Resort, he brought a rich base of hydroponics knowledge with him.
A year later, he founded Mountain View Gardens, between Kalispell and Columbia Falls, quickly making a name for himself with his tomatoes. Five years ago, Keith took a step back from daily operations, passing the baton to his daughter Liz and son-in-law, Noah Hashley, both 25.
“Liz always had an interest in farming, ever since growing hydroponic tomatoes for the science fair in fifth grade,” Keith says. Noah, meanwhile, born and raised in Kalispell, had realized he liked working with plants while he was in practicum to become a math teacher and was helping out at Keith’s farm on the side.
The foundation of this family farm is 10 and a half climate-controlled greenhouses on an acre of ground near the Kalispell airport. All their vegetables are grown hydroponically in buckets filled with a nutrient-rich solution called coco peat, which is made from ground-up coconut husks. Regarded as the most organic type of growing medium, coco peat holds water more efficiently than perlite. When the tomato vines are tall enough, the farmers attach them to twine strung from above, creating a dense canopy of leafy vines.
Hydroponic farmers do everything by hand: seeding, growing, transplanting, picking, packing, and weighing. But the controlled environment allows the grower to eschew pesticides and herbicides because there’s less chance of disease, quicker growth, and greater fruit yield. Unlike vegetables grown in the soil, hydroponically grown produce doesn’t mold, get powdery mildew, or rot on the vine.
On average per week, Mountain View Gardens produces 12,000 pounds of tomatoes, including beefsteak, cherry, grape, and heirloom; as well as butter lettuce and romaine; seedless English cucumbers; and fresh herbs, including living basil. Their goods go from the greenhouse to the grocer’s in 24 to 48 hours at most, March through December.
“Whenever a local farmer in Montana can extend the growing season, it’s a good thing for everyone,” says Chris DiMaio, the head chef of Three Forks Grille in Columbia Falls. “Keith does this without loss of flavor or quality.”
Mountain View supplies 60 active clients including all five Super One grocery stores in the Flathead Valley, The Good Food Store, the University of Montana, School District 5, Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, farmers markets, and many high-end restaurants in the valley like Latitude 48 and Three Forks Grille.
“What they do is a lot of hard work,” says Nancy Hayes, the produce manager of Third Street Market in Whitefish. But the payoff is worth it, she continues. “Their product is 100 percent better than Mexico’s. Their taste is like garden tomatoes.”
Find Mountain View Gardens produce at local grocery stores and online at mvg-mt.com.
Photos: Lauren Lipscomb
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