One of the delights of an Ohio summer is the taste of a fresh, local, vine-ripened tomato, but summer may no longer be the only time to enjoy that flavor. An innovative farm near Delta is working to expand the state’s fresh tomato season with 45 acres of hydroponic greenhouse production.
NatureFresh Farms broke ground for its Ohio facilities in April 2015 and began harvesting tomatoes in February 2016. The farm’s plant breeding efforts and proximity to consumers help deliver a tasty tomato through the off-season, says Chris Veillon, director of marking for NatureFresh Farms. “Our opportunity is really in the winter months.”
From designer to farmer
The founder of NatureFresh, Peter Quiring, took an indirect route to becoming a farmer, starting as a greenhouse designer and builder in Ontario. However, the first greenhouses he built didn’t find the buyers he expected, so he ended up operating them himself. Currently, NatureFresh has 130 acres in greenhouse production in Ontario, producing tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers. The company expanded into Ohio to reach new consumer markets and to take advantage of lower energy costs here, explains Veillon. In Ohio, the farm pays 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, but in Canada the price is four to five times that amount.
The Ohio farm’s location a mile south of Interstate 80 puts fresh tomatoes within a five-hour drive of 20 million people, Veillon says. The Ohio-grown tomatoes are being sold through major grocery chains in Ohio, as well as in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York. The tomatoes’ Ohio origins are an important selling point because so many of the tomatoes available in the marketing area in the off-season are imported. NatureFresh Farms is marketing them under the brand “Ohio Red” and labeling them with the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Ohio Proud seal. Enrolling in the Ohio Proud program was a “no-brainer,” says Veillon. “I couldn’t get my $25 in fast enough.”
Connecting with consumers is an important part of NatureFresh Farms’ marketing plan, adds Veillon. NatureFresh has been shooting video of tomato production in the greenhouses, even using drones for overhead shots. The videos are available through the farm’s website and on Facebook. Already NatureFresh Farms has more than 85,000 Facebook followers. NatureFresh also demonstrates greenhouse production using a trailer that can be taken to fairs, schools and other events. “This greenhouse education center has been a game-changer for us,” says Veillon.
NatureFresh is working to make seasonal tomato lovers into year-around consumers by offering flavorful tomatoes beyond Ohio’s outdoor growing season. “Consumers would typically stop buying in November,” says Veillon. Ohio already has plenty of locally grown fresh tomatoes during the outdoor growing season, and NatureFresh isn’t aiming for that market, he adds. “We’re not going to replace the consumers’ backyard gardens.”
In fact, the Ohio greenhouse will stop production during the months of July and August. Consumers can find locally grown tomatoes from other sources during those months and the greenhouses need to be cleaned out and prepared for replanting, Veillon explains. However, labor availability is also a concern. Many of the employees at the greenhouse are natives of other countries working in the U.S. under the H2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program. To meet the requirements of the program, they can’t remain in the U.S. year-round.
The Ohio greenhouse employs 130 people, and the base wage is $13 an hour, with bonus pay dependent on productivity. Finding qualified workers has been one of the challenges of expanding production, Veillon says. “Access to labor is a huge problem.”
NatureFresh Farms is planning to add more greenhouse space to the 45 acres already under glass at the Ohio site, according to Veillon. However, construction is paused for the time being so the farm can catch up with some exterior landscaping. “We want to be a good neighbor,” he notes. When the planned construction is complete, the greenhouse will support around 300 jobs.
Ohio ag growth
The Ohio NatureFresh greenhouse was one of the ag businesses included this year in the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s annual Ag Week celebration. “We do Ag Week to shine a light on Ohio’s largest industry,” explains David Daniels, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Large-scale greenhouse production like that at NatureFresh Farms is an area of growth in Ohio Agriculture, he notes. “There’s opportunity here.”
Daniels says he expects to see additional growth in greenhouse production, particularly in northwest Ohio, where flat ground lends itself to construction of large-scale facilities. Advances in technology are also contributing to growth of greenhouse production, he adds. “There’s a lot of high-tech food manufacturing going on here.”
The NatureFresh Farms tomato production system is set up with waist-high planter platforms set up in rows through the greenhouse. The tomato plants are rooted in a soilless growing medium made of coconut husks, and water and nutrients are pumped directly to the roots. Along the ground below the growth platforms, pipes carry hot water from the greenhouse’s boiler system to heat the greenhouse. Those same pipes serve as rails to carry machinery used for plant management and harvest, explains Jason Guenther, operations manager for NatureFresh.
The tomato plants are supported from above on strings and those strings are adjusted as the season progresses, Guenther explains. As the plants grow, they set fruit along the vine and the fruit closest to the roots matures first. Once a week, after mature tomatoes are harvested, workers extend the strings, bringing the next harvest within reach. The lower vines are wrapped horizontally along the planter platforms and the vines holding fruit continue to grow upward, Guenther explains. “The plant is turned and brought over as it continues to grow.”
The glass on the green house is textured to diffuse sunlight, which helps it penetrate from the top of the vines to the bottom. During the short days of winter, high-pressure sodium lights are used at night to supplement natural light, using off-peak electrical power. Since there is no wind within the greenhouse to distribute pollen, bumblebees are used as pollinators. The greenhouse also uses as many as 19 different species of beneficial insects to manage insect pests without insecticides.