(11/15/23) BOSSIER CITY, La. — When Carrie Lott began her career at the LSU AgCenter Red River Research Station, she never imagined she would one day oversee the production of more than 60,000 pounds of tomatoes per year, but her talent and commitment to learning the trade has made her the undisputed greenhouse queen of north Louisiana.
Three decades ago, Lott began training under AgCenter researcher Hanna Y. Hanna, who started the program. She had recently been laid off from her job at a grocery store and, at age 22, was looking for a fresh start. A friend who worked at the research station told her she should apply for a job picking tomatoes.
“I came in and interviewed for the job and they put me to work that afternoon,” she said. “Back then, we were only doing field tomatoes.”
Three years later, the research station began the experiment of growing tomatoes in one greenhouse.
As research farm supervisor, Lott now manages a four-person team working in three greenhouses with 600 plants in each. The station produces two crops per year, selling them on Tuesdays and Fridays from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15 in the fall and March 15 to July 15 in the spring.
“We grow beefsteak and cherry tomatoes at times of the year when no one else can,” she said. “We have heated greenhouses with controlled environments.”
Lott said Hanna taught her everything she knows about tomatoes and how to grow them. She worked with him for 20 years before he died in 2013, leaving her in charge of the greenhouses to continue his research.
“There’s a lot of work to grow greenhouse tomatoes,” Lott said. “The fall crop gets about 12 to 15 feet tall with about 9 pounds of fruit per plant. In the spring, the crop can reach 20 to 25 feet with about 25 pounds per plant.”
The process begins by planting seeds in an aluminum growing tray with drainage at the bottom. There are 750 seeds per tray, and they germinate at 78 degrees Fahrenheit. After germination, the plants are transplanted to a 3-inch pot with PRO-MIX soil. The tomatoes are then fertilized with 3-19-39, calcium nitrate and Epsom salt every time they are watered, and they are pruned weekly to three tomatoes per cluster to increase the size of the fruit.
Greenhouse plants can’t grow without pollination, so Lott and her crew hand pollinate with the interestingly named “petal tickler,” which resembles an electric wand. This is done from January to March. Afterwards, she brings in bumblebee hives to keep the process going in the warmer months.
“With the petal tickler, it’s important not to touch the flower, just the stem,” she said. “The vibration shakes the pollen inside the flower and drops it to where it needs to be, just like the bees do in nature.”
Challenges to growing greenhouse tomatoes include occasional insects like spider mites, white flies and thrips, Lott said. Also, heat in the summer can cause tomatoes to crack.
“My go-to variety for the greenhouse is Rebelski,” she said. “It’s a smaller tomato, but it’s less susceptible to cracks and in my opinion is the best tasting.”
Along with Rebelskis, Lott is currently doing research on cherry tomatoes and four additional varieties of beefsteaks: Torero, Geronimo, Altadena and Inspired.
“When I started here, my original plans were to go to college and become a nurse,” Lott said of her life before learning about tomatoes. “Now, I’m still here and love what I do. My job is very rewarding.”
Individual and group tours of the greenhouses are available by appointment only by calling the Red River Research Station at 318-741-7430.
LSU AgCenter Red River Research Station farm supervisor Carrie Lott hand pollinates greenhouse tomatoes with a petal tickler, which resembles an electric wand. The station produces two crops per year. Photo by V. Todd Miller/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter Red River Research Station sells greenhouse tomatoes on Tuesdays and Fridays from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15 in the fall and March 15 to July 15 in the spring. Photo by V. Todd Miller/LSU AgCenter
LSU AgCenter Red River Research Station farm supervisor Carrie Lott’s latest project is growing greenhouse cherry tomatoes. Photo by V. Todd Miller/LSU AgCenter