ALBANY, Minn. – Snow still covered the ground when Jeff Skalicky visited a Villard farm for work in March 1998.
At the time, Skalicky was nicknamed "Banker" — his father, Norm, is the longtime chief executive of the Stearns County Bank.
"We walked inside the greenhouse and it blew my mind," recalled Skalicky, who had joined his dad in banking. "It was full of beautiful plants with big huge tomatoes on them."
The farm he visited used hydroponic technology, which grows plants in mineral solutions instead of soil. The greenhouses are climate-controlled to grow the vegetables at optimal temperatures and speed up harvest. The science inspired Skalicky so much that he left banking to start his own hydroponic growing operation that includes tomatoes and peppers.
"I discovered I needed to work with my hands," he said. "I needed the instant gratification of seeing the results of your labor."
He started growing in 1999 under a Hydroboy label. Skalicky's new nickname became "Hydro."
Then a Coborn's executive suggested he rebrand as the Tomato King.
"It's Stearns County — everybody's got a nickname," Skalicky jokes. "People now have a lot of fun with the Tomato King nickname. When I'm doing deliveries, the produce workers will often say, 'Thanks, your majesty.' "
The Tomato King logo is actually the face of Skalicky's son, Trenton, who helps pick produce and sells the products at farmers markets in the area. "I've been called the tomato prince," Trenton Skalicky joked.
Tomato King has about 7,000 plants, all started from seed. They harvest in about 115 to 120 days and grow in buckets of water and volcanic rock.
"The rock is obviously organic, and it really absorbs and holds water beautifully," Jeff Skalicky said.
The farm, which has 12 employees, could grow its tomatoes and peppers year-round.
But Skalicky intends to release his special crop only as often as he's ready.
"I need a break and I think the marketplace needs a break," Skalicky said. "And when it gets back into [the] market, people are really looking forward to it."