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VOL. 129 | NO. 62 | Monday, March 31, 2014

 

Tomato Baby Co. Offers Plants and Philosophy

By Bill Dries

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Being “Tomato Girl” isn’t a full time job for Alainia Hagerty. She has a day job that doesn’t involve selling dozens of varieties of tomato plants grown in her Brighton, Tenn., greenhouse.

But she views the online business with a national reach as a way of life.

“All winter long, people think about their gardens and what they liked and didn’t like from last year,” Hagerty said. “A garden is a process of continuous improvement. It’s like a painter that paints a picture and they like it. But the next time they paint it, it’s going to be bigger and grander and brighter and better. Gardens are a dream. It’s imagination.”

Alainia Hagerty of Tomato Baby Co. waters more than 100 different varieties of tomato plants in her Brighton greenhouse. She sells the products through her website, tomatobabycompany.com.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

So when the Tipton County Lawn & Garden Expo opens Saturday, April 5, at Brighton High School, another season of tomato plants and gardens – and dreams of both – will begin for Hagerty’s business, Tomato Baby Co. (tomatobabycompany.com).

“I get the engineer type, and they tell me how they lay their garden out and they are going to put this down and do that,” she said. “There’s people that are gardening on patios. They want to grow something, but they don’t have the ground to put it in. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s a hobby that is connected a lot of times to people’s roots and people’s pasts. … Even if they weren’t into gardening as a kid, when you are remembering the things your parents or grandparents did, you’re also remembering the things they say. In a lot of ways, it’s connecting to the people in the past.”

Hagerty’s father was an engineer-type gardener, which followed since he owned his own steel fabrication business, making steel and rubber conveyor belts. Her mother had a ceramics shop.

“I grew up in self-employment,” she said.

So when her father “duped” her into a tomato-growing competition in 2003 in which he didn’t grow any but offered her lots of advice, she countered by selling them on eBay and pocketing about $200. After a couple of years, she switched to a website.

“There’s a good top 20 that people are familiar with. They are familiar with the story –like the heirlooms. … I would say they are better-known, not necessarily better-tasting,” she said. “They’ll hit that list and I’ll know they haven’t necessarily tried them but they’ve been reading for a while.”

So she might throw in a sample of a different variety for them to try. A customer will get what they order, but they might get more based on past selections.

“If they pick all reds, we have to throw some sort of color in there to just throw them off a little bit,” Hagerty said.

The business model is a response to the packaging of plants at big-box stores that doesn’t necessarily encourage the real roots of gardening.

“Our niche is that when I started selling them, any time you saw them online, you had to buy four of a kind or six of a kind,” Hagerty said. “If you want to plant 10 plants and you want to try 10 kinds, you didn’t want to buy 10 plants of six each and have 60 plants. We’re providing a product, but really it’s more of a service.”

Tomato Baby offers about 140 types of tomato plants as well as 36 types of pepper plants and eggplant. Hagerty has help with planting and boxing them up for delivery but otherwise tends them herself in her greenhouse.

She regularly reviews what her customers are ordering with an eye toward paring down the types of tomatoes.

“But the list keeps growing and people keep sending me seeds. I open the mailbox and somebody has put a pack of seeds in an envelope,” she said. “I’ve got customers that mail them to me now because they would rather just get them sent to them instead of babysitting them for two months. Even if it’s a plant type that we don’t offer … we’ll sample those plants out to others.”

Her plants aren’t grown organically, but she doesn’t doctor them to make the tomatoes redder or more eye-appealing – which leaves a group of “ugly babies” at the end of the season that Hagerty sends out in sample boxes.

One of those boxes wound up at The White House last year, and Hagerty got a note from President Barack Obama thanking her for them.

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