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Published July 24 2010

Barnesville man invents new tomato support system

In 40 seasons of gardening, Joyce Illa has tried everything to protect her tomato plants.

The rural Ashby, Minn., gardener had used cages, wires and even steel stakes to keep the plants off the ground and shield them from pests and disease.

But the supports were usually no match for the heavy vines and Minnesota’s even heavier winds.

That is, until Illa tried tomato cradles. The simple, crib-like supports held the plants off the ground, even as they grew heavy with fruit in mid-summer. And they stayed upright in the strongest of thunderstorms.

“They don’t move,” Illa says. “They keep everything up like I wanted them to.”

Her 10 tomato cradles generated so many queries and comments that she decided to purchase six more. She’s given that half-dozen away to friends and family members.

“I’ve been quite pleased. I would recommend them to anyone,” she says.

That’s exactly what Tim Lien loves to hear. Lien builds the cradles, based on prototypes made by his own father in the 1970s.

Now, with more people gardening to cut down on grocery bills, Lien hopes the time is ripe for the TC Tomato Cradle.

“It would almost take a tornado to knock these over,” the Barnesville, Minn., man says of the cradles. “They work. That’s the bottom line.”

Dad’s, uncle’s brainchild

Indirectly, Lien owes his invention to his dad, Alfred, his Uncle Norman and his wife of four years, Cassie.

It was Cassie who got him to plow up some turf in the backyard for a small vegetable garden several years ago. Before long, Tim took over the vegetable garden while she maintained the flower beds.

They loved to raise tomatoes for freezing and canning. Still, Tim was dissatisfied with the tomato cages on the market.

“If the wind doesn’t knock them over, the size of the plant will,” he says. “And most you have to throw away after a few years.”

In search of a better alternative to wire cages, he dug out the four wooden cradles that his dad and uncle had designed and built 30-some years ago.

The cradles had grown pretty dilapidated over the years. So Tim used them as a guide to build his own replicas from pieces of lath and furring strips in the summer of ’09.

The framework of the cradles is formed by four furring strips nailed to form two X-shaped legs. They measure about 3 feet high and 2½ feet wide when open. Each cradle folds into compact, stackable pallets, about 4 inches thick.

They can be placed over any vine-producing plant while it’s still small. As the plant grows, its vines will be supported by the crib-like top of the wooden structure.

Cassie thought the cradles were unique enough to sell, but Tim shrugged it off as a loving wife’s enthusiasm. Then he placed the cradles in their yard. Almost immediately, neighbors began asking about them.

Several echoed Cassie’s sentiments: that the cradles should be marketed.

The couple thought it might be worth a try. Tim’s job at a concrete block plant requires a lot of physical labor, and he knows he can’t do it forever.

“I just turned 50 in March and Cassie is 48, so we thought why not? I’d rather that we try it than wonder what if?” he says.

Patent pending

The Liens are now in the process of patenting the cradles.

Since this spring, they’ve sold 200 of the tomato supports through newspaper ads and small, local greenhouses. They’ve netted about $1,000 in sales – an amount that’s exceeded their expectations.

Cassie says they’d be content to pay off the $10,000 loan they borrowed for patenting and marketing costs.

But if business continues to grow, Tim may have to move his one-man basement operation to a large-scale assembly line. He’s thought about approaching Productive Alternatives, an agency that employs disabled workers for manufacturing jobs.

Nick Bruneau, a manager at Breckendale Flower Farm in Breckenridge, Minn., believes the Tomato Cradle has growth potential.

Bruneau says he sold 23 of the cradles at his greenhouse in a month.

“They sold really well,” he says. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Breckendale’s owner was impressed enough by the product to say he wanted to carry it in another greenhouse he owns in Minnetonka, Minn., next year, Bruneau says.

And the Liens are already thinking of ways to expand the cradle’s uses. They believe it will also work for cucumbers and pepper plants.

“They’ll work for any viney thing,” Tim says. “They’re not just for tomatoes anymore.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525