1896 Clous Rd.
Kingsley, MI 49649
Farmers: Richard, Gaynell, and their son, Rick.
Season: Tomatoes May-Dec. Lettuce available year round.
Products: Hydroponic tomatoes and lettuce.
Production: We've grown over 3 million lbs. of tomatoes since 1990.
Favorite Tool: Their hands!
Favorite Farm Animals: Betty, the pig. Horses: Thelma and Louise, Mitzi, Ginger, and Jetta.
Favorite Recipe: Tomato sauce over spaghetti, using Gaynell's own top-secret recipe!
Favorite Hobby: We love watching the purple martins that nest on the farm each summer. We build special birdhouses for them, and this year we had 33 pairs, who in turn, had about 132 young! They arrive around April 11-16 every year and they always leave around August 10-15. They've been coming to the farm since before 1980. We love to sit and watch them in the evening, as the sun is setting. They fly up and around and then dive bomb straight into the holes of their houses. It's amazing to watch! You look forward to them coming each year, and when they leave, you miss them.
Why do you love farming? We like living on a farm and the lifestyle. Being in the country, with space around you, and being our own boss. You can take off any day you want, but you will have to make up for it the next day, as there's no one else to do it!
Our Customers: Some of our customers are so loyal that they'll ask at the store, "Are those Zenner tomatoes?" and if not, they'll say, "No thanks, I'll wait for the Zenners."
What's challenging about farming?
The weather. The costs of heating and cooling the buildings.
Local foods: So much food is brought in across our borders, and we don't know what's sprayed on it. We don't like that on our food. We buy my meat from local farmers, as we like to know where it's from. When we shop, we ask where it comes from. It's important to do that.
Future Plans: Spending the winters in Arkansas, and passing down the business to their son, Rick and their daughter, Angela.
Tomatoes for Christmas
By Janice Benson, Taste the Local Difference
Richard Zenner uses hydroponics to extend his farm's growing season.
If you thought locally grown tomatoes were something that could only be savored in the late weeks of summer, think again. For the past 21 years, Richard and Gaynell Zenner have grown tomatoes hydroponically at their farm in Kingsley for about eight months every year.
Beginning in late April, and going steadily until around Christmastime, their greenhouse is loaded with beautiful, flavorful tomatoes, despite northern Michigan’s often-unpredictable weather.
Born on his family’s farm, near Kingsley, Richard has farmed for most of his life. His parents and grandparents had worked that same land, on Clous Road, since before 1920. Gaynell was born in Arkansas and moved to northern Michigan when she was just six. She lived near Northport before moving to the small town of Hannah, near Kingsley.
Richard and Gaynell attended St. Mary’s Hannah High School, and that’s where it all started—where, as Gaynell fondly remembers, “I met the love of my life, Richard Zenner!” They became high school sweethearts and, after school, got married and settled down to raise their family on the farm.
Richard raised corn, oats, and wheat, and also worked as a carpenter to provide for his family. Gaynell raised their three children, Angela, Rick, and Chad and worked for many years at Northport Pointe. Over the years the drive started getting too long and too expensive, so she started thinking about working closer to home.
In 1990, she and her sister, Wendi got the idea to start growing hydroponic tomatoes. They did some research and visited a farm to see how it worked. They even traveled to Ohio and toured several hydroponic farm operations there to learn all about it and ask questions.
When Gaynell got back home, she convinced Richard that they should give it a try. The two rented a bulldozer, cleared some land, and made a big purchase—their first greenhouse. “We learned pretty much by trial and error,” laughs Gaynell.
She recalls how exciting it was exciting to start their new business: Zenner Farms Hydroponic Tomatoes. Each year they learned more about the business. It grew quickly and, soon, Richard was working full-time, too. Twenty-one years later, their business is one of the most successful, thriving hydroponic farms in the region.
Some shoppers ask for Zenner's tomatoes by name.
Secrets to Success
Each January, they plant 5,000 seeds; each February, they place the plants on “lines” where they are clipped onto cables that hang from the top of the greenhouse. The tomato plants grow as long as 25-30 feet. They presently have 4,500 tomato plants growing strong.
They grow four varieties of both slicer and cherry tomatoes; some are test plants, grown for seed as research for companies.
They grow their tomatoes without spray or chemicals, and use their own bees, which live in special cardboard hives, to pollinate them. Since the greenhouses protects the plants from the elements, the only trouble these growers sometimes have is with white flies and spider mites. When they do, they use Integrated Pest Management practices to control the insects, and they very carefully limit who and what comes into the greenhouse.
Their tomatoes are beautiful and round, the color and shape of perfection. When they first started their business, they took tomato samples around to stores and markets for people to taste. One customer at a time, their business grew.
They still distribute samples, according to Gaynell.
“That’s the best marketing”, she notes. “Some people think hydroponic tomatoes taste like cardboard, until they’ve tried ours.”
Their secret is a simple, albeit profound one. As Richard explains, “We pick our tomatoes when they are at their peak. That’s the difference from the ones at the stores, which are picked green, ripened with gas, and then shipped thousands of miles. Ours are picked ripe one day and delivered locally the next day so the flavor is at it’s best.”
Expanding the Business
Four years ago, they expanded their operation to include growing hydroponic lettuce. They grow Bibb, Romaine, and Grand Rapids Bibb. Each plant takes about 42-60 days until harvest, so they continually plant new seeds, to make sure they have a supply of lettuce year round.
They deliver their produce themselves and through Cherry Capital Foods, supplying many local restaurants and groceries. Their tomatoes and lettuce are available at Oleson’s West and East, Burritt’s Fresh Market, Maxbauer’s, the Traverse City Country Club, Trattoria Stella, The Sole Hole, Amical, Seven Monks, Poppycock’s, Northland Food in Kalkaska and Kingsley, The Village Market in Elk Rapids, The Watervale Inn, Camp Arcadia, The Market Basket and many other businesses.
Their son Rick works with them during their busiest months, April through October. The three stay very busy then, keeping up with the demand from restaurants and grocers, especially when tourists are in town. Rick and his sister, Angela, who lives in Boston, plan to take over the family farm one day.
The Zenners also hope to inspire their grandchildren to get interested in farming. This summer, they started teaching them to grow hydroponic cucumbers, so they learn first hand what it takes to grow them, care for them, and sell them. “We let them keep the profits from all of the sales, so it’s a great learning experience for them. When you see our cucumbers at the stores, those are the grandkids cukes!” Gaynell proclaims.
Richard and Gaynell dream about someday spending winters on her family land in Arkansas. But for now, they are busy growing their business here in northern Michigan, being with their family, and doing what they love.