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Tomatoes in the High Country

How one Steamboat man is growing a year-round supply of heirloom tomatoes in a converted shipping container.

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Winter and early spring at nearly 7,000 feet in Colorado is the stuff of The Revenant—frigid, snowy, and nary a fresh vegetable in sight. Yet Steamboat resident Robert Ellsworth has created a wintertime escape from the cold in the form of an indoor garden oasis called Boxcar Gardens. His budding business grows heirloom tomatoes to supply the mountain town’s top local restaurants like Bistro CV and Low Country Kitchen—even in the middle of winter.

Ellsworth is a bit of a free spirit. He spent years following the Grateful Dead before moving to Colorado, where he made a living refurbishing homes and designing furniture. As an artist, he was intrigued by the idea of creating a warm environment insulated from Steamboat’s harsh, cold winter. In 2014, Ellsworth realized that his art installation inside a converted shipping container was more than just a balmy oasis—it was also the perfect habitat in which to grow tomatoes, herbs, and microgreens. With the help and guidance of Mark and Caroline Rueff, the couple behind Tasty Tomato (which also provides several Steamboat eateries with hydroponic tomatoes year-round), Ellsworth began growing his own crop. (Today, Boxcar and Tasty Tomato operate as partners, tending to each other’s crops and projects.)

Ellsworth
The interior of Ellsworth’s shipping container

Ellsworth began refining his tomato-growing technique by looking at indoor marijuana-growing operations. He saw that the large warehouses were lit with costly sodium lamps, were poorly insulated (requiring either air or heat pumped in to regulate the temperature), and used profligate amounts of water. As a result, he designed his container and nearby greenhouse with sustainability at the forefront. It’s carefully insulated with a rolling rubber roof that can be adjusted to control temperature and he uses lamps that are attached to a rail and can be moved around based on the plants’ needs (which allows him to use half as many lamps as other operations). Thanks to a hydroponics system, Ellsworth is able to recycle what little water he does use. One especially interesting feature of Ellsworth’s setup is the vibrating wand he uses for pollination purposes since there are no honeybees indoors. “We get to be the bee,” he says.

And while Ellsworth’s tomato operation prizes energy efficiency and sustainability, he also values taste. Ellsworth’s heirloom tomatoes have nothing in common with the mushy, tasteless, mass-produced supermarket varieties. Currently, he’s growing 12 cultivars, including Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Chocolate Stripes, Wild Galapagos, and Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter. (The latter’s seeds have remained undiluted stock for more than 50 years, and it’s so named because selling the seeds allowed the creator, Charlie, to pay off the mortgage on his radiator shop.) Ultimately, Ellsworth wants his varieties to be recognized as unique local specialties. “It’s the story of places like Italy,” Ellsworth says. “Each region is known for its unique food items, they take pride in the differences of their locally grown foods.”

All of this begs the question: Why aren’t more people doing this? As it turns out, they are. Ellsworth has heard about folks in places as inhospitable as Alaska having success growing in converted shipping containers. And while his current crop is so small that he has just enough to supply a couple of local restaurants, he hopes to eventually grow enough to sell direct to consumer.


Try them: For a taste of Boxcar’s harvest, try the lamb pancetta dish at Bistro CV, where the tomatoes are served with charred yogurt, crispy quinoa, and microgreens.

Bistro CV, 345 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, 970-879-4197

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