The day may have escaped you, but Canadian greenhouse giant, NatureFresh Farms, known for its tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers, broke ground on April 10, 2015 for phase one of a 12-phase state-of-the-art greenhouse project in Delta, OH. By 2022, the master project plans call for 180 acres to be constructed.
The Ohio facility produces tomatoes — locally grown varieties — in the winter. The goal is to have fresh beefsteak, tomatoes-on-the-vine, and specialty tomatoes year-round.
The first planting in the 15 acres that comprise phase one went in the day before Thanksgiving 2015; and February 2016 marked the first time tomatoes were picked in the winter in Ohio, according to Chris Veillon, Director of Marketing at NatureFresh Farms.
Construction on phase two began in January, and NatureFresh broke ground for phase three in the spring. The third phase is expected to be up and running in the fall. When all three phases of the Ohio greenhouse facility are completed, it will house 45 acres. The Leamington, Canada, location currently produces on 130 acres. NatureFresh will continue building its remaining phases in the project starting in 2018.
A Sustainable Destination
Why Ohio? Veillon says the location is close to NatureFresh’s key partners in the Midwest such as Wegmans, Kroger, and Heinen’s — to name a few. Plus, Veillon says the Ohio location is within a five-hour drive of densely populated areas, putting NatureFresh’s produce in front of close to 20 million people.
From a sustainability standpoint, the location greatly reduces food miles, fuel consumption, and the tomatoes can carry the locally grown tagline.
Unlike product coming from Mexico, Veillon says NatureFresh can deliver tomatoes to grocery stores within 24 hours of picking. “The end result is consumers can buy locally grown and get flavorful tomatoes — in the winter. The other advantage is that we can leave the tomatoes on the vine longer to maximize flavor, quality, and yield.”
To have product ready to ship year-round, the Ohio greenhouse interplants its tomatoes, which involves adding a new crop behind plants that are currently producing tomatoes. This includes a lot of vines, adds Veillon, which can be up to 50 feet per plant.
To aid in the production process, the facility uses high-pressure sodium lighting (HPS) from Agrolux, which gives off a significant amount of heat and is said to compensate for the lack of sunlight in the Buckeye State during the winter months.
To irrigate the tomatoes, water is housed in fresh water retention tanks, which hold millions of gallons. From a central location, the water is pumped to the tomatoes via a dripper system.
“[Nutrients] that the plants need to thrive is fed through this same dripper system, which is run in a closed-loop network to avoid any nutrient water being released into local waterways,” Veillon explains.
To pick the tomatoes, which generally occurs twice a week, workers use scissor lifts built by NatureFresh’s sister company and greenhouse builder, South Essex Fabricating Inc. The lifts run on heated rails that reside between the rows of tomatoes, also providing additional heat for the plants.
Approximately 23,000 cases of tomatoes are picked each week at the Ohio facility. To keep track of all the product, NatureFresh uses a labor management system from Priva, a company that supplies sustainable technologies for protected agriculture, which provides 100% traceability back to the person who picked the product.
Crop Protection Tools
To keep the tomato plants healthy, sticky cards are present throughout the facility so any pest issues can be dealt with immediately. Veillon says the tomatoes are not certified organic, but organic procedures are followed to control pests.
Specifically, when problems arise, biopesticides and biocontrols are the first line of defense. Beneficials, such as ladybugs, are used to help control aphids, he explains. “We use good bugs like ladybugs to take care of the bad bugs to reduce the need for pesticides,” Veillon says.
NatureFresh also uses about 100 beehives from Koppert to pollinate the tomato plants, which is all part of the company’s overall IPM program.
Creating And Distributing A Brand
The brand of tomatoes created specifically for the Ohio facility, OhioRed, was developed through research and trials, homing in on the traits most consumers in Ohio and the surrounding areas desire in his or her tomatoes.
NatureFresh also had to develop an intricate plan to successfully pack and ship the 23,000-plus cases of tomatoes to grocery stores in the Midwest each week. Veillon says once the remaining two phases are complete, all three facilities will deliver product to one packing area.
The tomatoes are sent through an automatic palletizer and then conveyed into a precooler where they are housed anywhere from a few hours to one day. Most of the produce is shipped in bulk and has a unique PLU and tomato-on-the-vine custom tag so customers know it is Ohio grown, Veillon adds.
As the construction continues, the plan for the Ohio operation will remain the same: produce fresh tomatoes in the winter and distribute them to the 20 million-plus consumers in the surrounding areas. Now that sounds like a solid plan.