From carbon negative greenhouses to advances in sustainability, greenhouse growers are looking to new technologies to save money and gain an edge in the marketplace.
“How can we continue to be more efficient from an agricultural standpoint?” Bryant Ambelang, vice president of sales and marketing for Desert Glory Ltd., San Antonio, said is the question Desert Glory asks when making new technology investments. “The challenge for the growers is it costs money to make money.”
Ambelang estimated it takes up to three seasons to determine whether a technology really works. Once it is proven, the investment to expand it across 1,000 acres of greenhouses could be in the millions of dollars.
From a sustainability standpoint, Ambelang said advances related to lighting, heating and cooling diverge from an industry trend toward less energy use.
“We don’t use artificial lighting. We choose the area that we grow in to have high light,” he said. Some of the investments Desert Glory is considering are use of natural energy sources, optimized venting for better cooling and recycling of irrigation water and extraction of fertilizers.
Chris Veillon, executive vice president of Mastronardi Produce Ltd., Kingsville, Ontario, said Mastronardi’s biggest asset is a new 23-acre carbon negative greenhouse that uses waste heat from a nearby industrial facility to grow peppers.
“It’s actually unique because peppers aren’t shipping from Ontario. They usually come later in spring,” he said. “We planted in late fall, which allows us to provide a significant advantage.”
Veillon said the four-phase project is expected to take up to four years and result in a total of 125 acres.
Doug Kling, chief sales and marketing officer for Village Farms, Eatontown, N.J., said he believes greenhouse technology will decrease in price in coming years as more greenhouses come online.
“As technology and farming advance and greenhouse technology advances, the cost decreases,” he said. “When you take those limited resources and utilize them much more efficiently … that has a cost impact greater than the cost of growing a tomato, pepper or cucumber.”
Beyond the cost of growing vegetables and running a greenhouse, Kling said there is a cost related to the impact on the community in terms of water supply, pollution and energy use that must also be considered looking toward the future.
Aaron Quon, greenhouse category director for the Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, agreed, noting that several Oppenheimer growers’ focus on sustainability is appealing to retailers.
Houwelings Hot House, for example, added 40 acres of sustainable greenhouses in 2008 that came online last year.
“They reuse the water, have solar panels for solar energy, and address other sustainable issues,” he said, adding that growers are otherwise looking to reduce their carbon footprint and become more sustainable through packaging and carbon neutral initiatives on their farms.
Quon said many retailers are now focusing on sustainability as it relates to their mission. Aligning with retail partners means adopting measures in line with corporate beliefs.
Kling said Village Farms plans to expand its commitment to sustainable practices.
“We are looking to expand that technology within the next two years in various locations so that we will have the most environmentally sustainable and efficient greenhouses anywhere in the world,” he said.
Kling said Village Farms already uses 87% less water than field growers, uses no insecticides and causes no soil erosion as a true hydroponic greenhouse that grows its plants in coco fiber.
“We believe that it’s the future of farming because there are water resources issues that we address, carbon footprint issue that we address, soil erosion issues that we address,” he said.
Hydroponic growers achieve yields 30 to 50 times greater per acre than field growers, Kling said.
Kling noted Village Farms is testing more than 30 different varieties of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers and has produced record yields at its Martha, Texas research facility.
In describing his company’s philosophy about social consciousness, Ambelang said social consciousness goes beyond just appealing to what retailers are looking for.
“We plan on being around for a very long time, and how we treat our community, employees and the environment makes it mandatory to be good neighbors,” he said. “It’s good business, beyond our customers asking for it.”
Desert Glory uses the sustainability firm Dev Design Compact to conduct annual sustainability reports that it posts online for anyone to read.
“It will grade us on what is our economic impact to the local area, what is our social impact — how good of neighbors are we — and our environmental impact,” he said.
“What they do is they come in and spend several weeks at every one of our facilities, go into the communities, talk to the communities about what we are doing and how we can do it better and grade us on how we would improve the economic viability of the people who work for us.”