By AMY BICKEL
The Hutchinson News via Associated Press
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) -- A cold north wind blows across John Miller's farm, which sits amid a patch of Reno County crop fields awaiting spring planting and a green blanket of winter wheat that is just breaking dormancy.
But take a step inside his greenhouse, where a gush of warm air hits visitors in the face. Nearly 1,600 green plants bunched with ripening tomatoes grow 10 feet high in rows underneath a protective awning where it is summer all winter long.
While some say tomato, Miller says hydroponic. Even in the coldest of months, there're tomatoes ready for picking by Miller; his wife, Frieda; and their six children - Rachael, 23; Kathy, 21; Arlene, 19; Walter, 16; Jonathan, 9; and Dorothy, 3. Here, on the plains of Kansas, not far south of South Hutchinson, the Millers are in the middle of a fledgling produce business. In fact, they are having trouble keeping up with the market demand.
Called Cheney Lake Tomatoes, the Millers grow a ton of tomatoes during many weeks of the year -- fresh, red herbicide- and pesticide-free tomatoes -- that when ready for picking are loaded into a van and driven to stores and farmers markets around the region, including Hutchinson, Kingman and Wichita.
"I was surprised after being at the farmers market ... just how much people here in Kansas really go for locally grown produce," Miller said from the greenhouse as his family busily boxed up cherry, cocktail and cluster tomatoes for shipping to a Wichita grocery.
It's a change from two years ago, he admits. Back then, the family really didn't have much of a green thumb or know anything about hydroponic tomatoes, for that matter. For several years, the Millers lived on a farm in Kentucky where they raised veal calves and rabbits.
In 2008, they moved to Kansas for church reasons, to the county where his mother grew up as a child.
"We always wanted to have a greenhouse," he said. "But we never had the opportunity. We were so busy in Kentucky."
The U.S. is one of the world's leading producers of tomatoes, second only to China, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fresh and processed tomatoes - mostly grown under nature's elements - account for more than $2 billion in annual farm cash receipts, with a majority of the production coming from states like California and Florida.
The rapidly growing greenhouse tomato industry has become an important part of the tomato business. Greenhouse tomatoes now represent an estimated 17 percent of the U.S.'s fresh tomato supply, the agriculture department reports.
The greenhouse operation, however, has been a learning experience, with Miller and the family reading books and talking to other growers about how to get started.
For instance, one misconception is that these tomatoes grow in water. Many growers, however, including Miller, use a sterile, organic matter that contains volcanic ash.
In the past, growers would have to pollinate their plants by hand. These days, pollinators come shipped in a cardboard hive filled with bumblebees that can be seen on any given day flying around the warm greenhouse. Tanks of fertilizer operated by a computer inject nutrients a few times every hour.
Yet getting a greenhouse put up and putting in plants was just one aspect of the complex business. The family had to learn the mechanics of greenhouse operation, which include heating the structure.
This, Miller says, is his favorite part of the business.
A furnace that burns woodchips not far from the greenhouse heats water to 175 degrees. The water is piped to the greenhouse and his farmhouse, heating both structures.
Except for experience in grinding woodchips and water usage, his heating expense is virtually zero. Moreover, he said, his furnace doesn't contaminate the environment. The process burns the smoke -- making the system a low pollutant.
All that aside, now the family is just trying to keep up with demand.
"It was a little scary at first," Miller said. "We didn't know the local grocery people or anything. But this year, I don't think we'll have enough tomatoes for the market out there."
Helping aid demand is the freeze that struck Florida's budding tomato crop this year, a state that produces a majority of the nation's tomatoes. The Millers will put up another greenhouse this summer, which will allow them to add another 800 plants -- allowing them to produce tomatoes year-round.
Chris Barnes, who runs Smith's Market, one of the retailers who sells the Millers' tomatoes, said he used to get his tomatoes from a hothouse in Nebraska. Now he gets as many as he can from the local grower.
Customers "really appreciate locally grown products, and I do, too," he said. "Last week, we advertised homegrown tomatoes, and people liked that, and I heard a lot of positive comments from customers about them."
Producing a quality product is just one reason they're in the business, Frieda Miller said.
"What I enjoy is this is something we can all do together," she said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.