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From Greenhouse to Al Biernat’s: the Success Story of Amelia’s Farm Tomatoes

photo via Amelia Farm's Facebook page
photo via Amelia Farm’s Facebook page

With her chunky blue necklace and fitted blazer, Amelia Von Kennel bears little resemblance to your typical farmer. Neither does her husband, Ben Von Kennel. But then again, they don’t really consider themselves farmers.

“We grow tomato plants,” Ben explained, “and we feature them to local markets and restaurants.”

The couple now sources their hydroponically-grown plants to some of the most popular restaurants in Dallas. But before all this, in their early 20s, they both worked in advertising, a world that had always felt familiar. Both of their families were in the industry. They worked long hours and earned steady paychecks but aspired to do something more fulfilling. One day, they decided to risk it all – their financial security, their relationship, their entire life. Ben and Amelia quit their jobs, took out a few loans and moved from Dallas to the small town of Bells to start their own produce business. Ben says Amelia jumped on board the minute he proposed the idea to her. Some friends and family members, however, lacked the same sense of enthusiasm.

“You’re leaving the ad world to become farmers?” Amelia recalled a friend asking. “Some people just didn’t get it,” she said.

And truthfully, neither did Ben nor Amelia at the time. With little to no farming knowledge, they began by searching for a space to grow their plants. After deciding on a piece of property that Ben’s family had already owned, the couple talked to their only source in the agricultural world – a friend who grew lettuce. And they began to self-educate. “To build our business, we had to learn how everything worked from the ground up,” Ben said.

In October 2011, the two moved out to the 130-acre ranch and started construction of the greenhouse. Next, Ben and Amelia needed to learn a thing or two about tomatoes, which they chose simply because “it’s the most versatile fruit you can grow.” And everyone loves tomatoes, Amelia added. Except Ben. “I actually don’t even really like tomatoes,” Ben chuckled. But as the ex-advertising duo knows, business is business. They spoke with some of their favorite high-end restaurants in Dallas and quickly found that tomatoes are in demand, especially during the winter months.

The savvy team was sold. With its greenhouse, the newly named Amelia’s Farm would grow and supply tomatoes year round.

AF4Ben and Amelia decided to grow their tomatoes pesticide-free and hydroponically, which means they are not planted in soil, but rather in a mineral nutrient solution, called perlite, that is spun out of volcanic rock. The tomatoes are then connected to iGrow, a computer system that detects when it is time to feed a crop, and exactly how much food and water they need. One primary advantage of this method is that it never overcompensates food or water and thus wastes as little as possible. It also creates a great product by feeding the tomatoes exactly the right amount.

As if the daily physical labor of growing roughly 200,000 pounds of tomatoes per year doesn’t keep Ben and Amelia busy enough, they also market, package, and distribute their tomatoes. “We wear a lot of hats,” Ben said. “I don’t think a lot of married couples could start a business together. But it works for us.” Fortunately, not only does the advertising aspect come naturally to both of them – after all, it’s “in their DNA,” as Ben says – but the benefits of the unique growing system are in the taste, as well.

“When Ben first brought us their product, we were blown away by how delicious they were,” said the general manager of Al Biernat’s Steakhouse, Brad Fuller. He said the restaurant immediately switched over to Ben and Amelia’s tomatoes as soon as they tasted their product, as they “surpassed the quality” of those they had been serving. “We’ll even serve them as a side dish with a little sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. They’re knife and fork tomatoes,” Fuller raved. “Our customers love them.”

Dallas diners at Meddlesome Moth, Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen, JoJo Eating House & Bar, and Green Grocer also enjoy Amelia’s Farm tomatoes. Outside Dallas, Amelia’s Farm also supplies to The Ranch in Las Colinas, Rick’s Chophouse and Square Burger in downtown McKinney, the Hilton Garden Inn in Richardson, and the Green Market in Sherman. In fact, their tomatoes are in such high-demand that Ben and Amelia are actually turning people down until they are able to expand the farm. By the end of 2013, they anticipate doubling their current client list, supplying to a total of 18 restaurants or farmers in the greater North Texas region.

“People are all over us,” Ben said. “And it’s a great feeling.” And not just those in the restaurant business. Some of Ben and Amelia’s friends want it, too – some of the same friends who initially expressed skepticism. “We have friends that are serious about working with us…and we love that, to help them get out of that rat race,” Ben said.

The transition to rural life has suited the Von Kennels, who don’t miss the hectic city life. While they admit that life out in Bells moves a bit slower, the couple drives into Dallas whenever they want a break from the countryside. More importantly, they have come to truly appreciate the calmer change in pace – and lifestyle. “There’s nobody beating on your door saying, ‘Where is this, where is this,’” Ben said, referring to his corporate days in advertising. “We’re our own bosses,” Amelia smiled.

Aspiring journalist Erica Robbie began her internship with D Magazine in January. Robbie, a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, is studying both the print and broadcast sides of journalism, in addition to sociology.