• Publisher's Note Fall 2012

    Publisher's Note Fall 2012

    On a hot day in July we wrote a check for our winter CSA share. In a flash, images of squash and leeks and Brussels sprouts and carrots filled our heads. As thoughts turned to cozy fires and savory, hearty dishes, the temperature outside moved ever upward. It was an odd juxtaposition, but we were happy to know that our winter CSA would take the pressure off our summer gardening endeavors.

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  • Storing Your Harvest

    Storing Your Harvest

    Until the mid 1950s, gardeners often slaved away at canning— or putting into jars—as much food from the garden as possible. Tomatoes, beans, carrots, peas…you name it, our grannies canned it. This was a time when fresh produce at the grocery store was expensive in winter and often limp and bedraggled.

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  • New Choices and Opportunities in Vermont's Dairy Scene

    New Choices and Opportunities in Vermont's Dairy Scene

    If you’ve ever raised goats, you know it’s next to impossible to keep them within their fences. Now more goats are getting into Vermont cow barns—but it’s because farmers are putting them there on purpose.

    The primacy of cow dairy in Vermont agriculture is undisputed, but goats are edging into the local dairy world. Abysmal cow milk prices paired with rising costs have farmers looking for alternatives or supplements in order to keep their farms profitable. And the ever-increasing vacant cow dairy properties provide excellent locations for new goat farms.

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  • Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 3

    Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 3

    It’s 102 degrees in the kitchen, and the chef at my Montpelier restaurant is making quick work of cutting up a chicken. He slides a razor-sharp boning knife along the breast, loosening the meat from the sternum. The birds he’s working on are smaller than we would have liked—barely more than three pounds each—but this week, they were all we could get.

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  • Hothouse Hydro

    Hothouse Hydro

    Islands have always had a local food problem. Granted, they’re often located in warm environments, have rich soil, and enjoy the kind of tourists who might want to sample an obscure local vegetable. But for many sun worshippers, lush green hills and mangroves make for a stark contrast to the dull and unappetizing non-local food on their plates.

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  • Making Peace with Plants

    Making Peace with Plants

    I spent a recent morning clearing “alien” species out of one of my garden beds. By “alien” I don’t mean “non-native”; I just mean plants that I didn’t want in there, which is often what the word alien connotes: beings that don’t belong where they are.  I wanted an artistic arrangement of red and green shiso in that bed (shiso is a Japanese culinary herb—or weed, or medicinal plant, depending on your point of view—that grows wild in many parts of Asia).

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  • Airport Flies Toward Local

    Airport Flies Toward Local

    In January 2013, The Skinny Pancake will open what is likely to be the first-ever local foods restaurant in an American airport. In fact, we’re opening three of them at the Burlington International Airport (BTV): a Skinny Pancake in each of the two post-security terminals and a Chubby Muffin kiosk across from the check-in counters on the first floor.

    For those of you who don’t know us, The Skinny Pancake and Chubby Muffin are sister-concept restaurants in Burlington and Montpelier with a mission to “change the world by building a safer, healthier, more delicious foodshed while creating everyday enjoyment that is fun and affordable.

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  • Neighbors Feeding Neighbors in St. Johnsbury

    Neighbors Feeding Neighbors in St. Johnsbury

    Standing in a local supermarket last August, scanning the shelves for a lemon to complete the ingredient list for my mother’s celebrated cucumber salad, I felt like a complete foreigner. I realized, as I surveyed the rows of coolly aligned produce, that it had been a full five months since I stepped foot inside a grocery store.

    This is because in the warmer months, the fruits of my own garden are frequently supplemented with produce and condiments from a variety of farm stands in the St. Johnsbury area and three local farmers’ markets.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Breakfast Pie

    Farmers' Kitchen—Breakfast Pie

    “You know what I could go for?” our 10-year-old son asked this morning. “A warm slice of apple pie.” He knows that apple pie is the only dessert he is allowed to have for breakfast. And those breakfast pies are always a treat, filled with apples that are a mixture of new varieties and century old heirlooms, all grown on our farm and harvested at the exact moment of perfection.

    We’re a small family operation in Walden Heights, in the Northeast Kingdom. We grow a great diversity of fruit species—apples, grapes, currants, gooseberries, cherries, blueberries, pears, raspberries, blackberries, and more—using organic methods and hand tools.

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  • Delivering Awe

    Delivering Awe

    When I arrived at Green Mountain Girls Farm in April for a yearlong apprenticeship, one of the many animals I met was Tacamba, a stocky but relatively skittish Boer goat, new to the farm. She was markedly more uncomfortable with us two-leggeds than her herd mates were, so Mari and Laura, farmers-in-chief, had spent some extra time socializing her with human interaction, hand-feeding her alfalfa cubes and petting her when she would let them.

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Hothouse Hydro

Vermont Hydroponics Seeks to Grow Tasty Local Tomatoes in Less Space

Hydro Tomatoes

Written By

Jeffrey Gangemi

Written on

October 25 , 2012

Islands have always had a local food problem. Granted, they’re often located in warm environments, have rich soil, and enjoy the kind of tourists who might want to sample an obscure local vegetable. But for many sun worshippers, lush green hills and mangroves make for a stark contrast to the dull and unappetizing non-local food on their plates.

A similar problem is faced by many shoppers in our northern climate, where local, seasonal produce—and the flavor and nutritional value it contains—is lacking on most supermarket shelves beyond a few productive months. Grocery store patrons more often encounter flavorless (and some say nutrient-deficient) Florida- and Mexico-grown tomatoes, plucked when green and then trucked thousands of miles.

“Why can’t (or won’t) modern agribusiness deliver a decent tasting tomato?” asks Vermont food writer Barry Estabrook in his book, Tomatoland. “And why can’t it grow one with a similar nutritional profile to the tomatoes available to any housewife during the Kennedy administration?”

East Middlebury resident Jeff Jones, managing partner of Vermont Hydroponic Produce, the largest hydroponic tomato grower in the state, has spent a lot of time in the Caribbean—as well as most of his career—helping solve the island food problem for large grocery store chains. Now he is applying his island experience to Vermont, and has a strategy to answer Estabrook’s question.

••••

Vermont Hydroponic Produce operates two greenhouses—one in Florence, near Rutland, and a larger one in Quebec. The company’s Vermont production, which totals roughly six pallets of tomatoes a week, supplemented by 1.5 weekly pallets (170 cases) of fresh basil, is currently limited to those two products—beefsteak tomatoes and sweet basil.

That’s all grown in just under eight acres—not exactly industrial size. By comparison, Jones’s tomato-growing competitor Backyard Farms, a hydroponic operation in Maine, manages 42 acres of greenhouses, and another competitor, Eurofresh Farms, operates out of two greenhouse facilities spanning 318 acres in Arizona.

So how does Vermont Hydroponic Produce create all that produce but still fit within the small-scale, decentralized local food system we enjoy in the Green Mountain State?

Hydroponics uses mineral-nutrient solutions and water to grow plants without soil. Vermont Hydroponic tomatoes in particular are grown in a salt solution mixed with well water. They sprout upward from a bed of coco coir, which is essentially ground up coconut shells and husks. Scores of plants are grown in a controlled environment (a large, white, hot, and humid greenhouse) in dense concentration, arranged in long rows.

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to this type of soilless growing. “One of the advantages of hydroponics is that you don’t get weeds and pests in that environment,” says Lynda Prim, the vegetable and fruit technical assistance advisor at Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont. Also on the positive side, hydroponics produces faster growth in plants, and they use approximately one-tenth less water.

However, Prim says diseases “could be more of a problem because of the proximity of the plants to each other in a closed, controlled environment.” Managing nutrients is also challenging, and Prim says there is general agreement that hydroponics results in less flavor and smell.

“A hydroponic tomato is what you feed it, and fertilizer is expensive, so the temptation is to not go that extra mile and give it all the nutrients it would need to develop a complex taste profile,” says Estabrook.

Nutrients and management equipment for hydroponic production can also be very expensive and complicated, and the disposal of hydroponic nutrients and matter does not meet the federal organic standards. In fact, the National Organic Standards Board has concluded that hydroponic growing not be recommended for organic certification “due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regulations governing them.”

The tomatoes grown at VT Hydro’s facilities are therefore not certified organic, but they are pesticide free, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which essentially gets bugs to eat other bugs, is used.

This all begs the question: how does a Vermont Hydroponic beefsteak tomato compare with a local, soil-grown heirloom variety in August? Well, there’s really no comparison, and some people will always prefer buying and eating tomatoes grown in soil. However, it’s easy to imagine feeling quite pleased about getting a tomato of similar quality on a cold Vermont January day, knowing it’s pesticide-free and grown within a couple hundred miles.

••••

Still, Jones’s willingness to work with big grocery chains is bound to ruffle the feathers of some local food purists. He says Vermont Hydroponic Produce has already been criticized for having one of its two growing facilities in Canada, about 400 miles away in Quebec.

But Jones says it’s all part of the plan. His goal is not to sell to a couple of co-ops or at local farmers’ markets. Instead, he aims to create a regional food network that can serve what he says is the 80 to 90 percent of people who aren’t shopping at such places—and to serve them good, fresh food grown within their region.

“We’re working hard to get our products into places where the average customer shops,” says Jones, who has developed an innovative distribution partnership with Schenectady, NY-based Price Chopper. (Shaw’s also buys from VT Hydro). “And we’re working with these companies to lessen the costs of transportation and therefore bring the cost of the actual produce down to the consumer.”

Operating a small-scale hydroponic operation does have several drawbacks, though. “There are two downsides,” says Estabrook. “One is that these tomatoes can be costly.” (Jones agrees that his tomatoes cost a premium over most in the store.) “And two, you can get some very bland-tasting hydroponic tomatoes. Vermont Hydroponic is the exception here. Their tomatoes deliver some decent taste.”

But in addition to taste, Jones wants to develop a stronger regional food system accessible to more people and to create local jobs. (Vermont Hydroponic currently employs 10 people in Vermont.) “The big boys all play at 30,000 feet,” Jones says. “Local is at kite-flying height, like 100 feet, and many who sell locally don’t want to work with the big guys. But if we don’t get that middle ground, how are we going to create jobs?”

••••

In his career before joining the company—which was founded by Barry Roche in 1994 and bought by Jones’s current business partner, Eric Frechette, in 2005—Jones was a grocery store executive who worked for a who’s who of large chains (Stop ‘n Shop and Roche Brothers are among his previous employers). Each time, he helped them solve the problem of keeping fresh produce on the shelves year-round in an island environment.

Jones set A&P company sales records on Martha’s Vineyard by transforming the company’s logistics plan to help keep fresh produce stocked during the busy summer season. He followed his time there with stints in Bermuda and in the Turks and Caicos islands, where the local stores would ship in fresh produce from the mainland. Jones helped organize scores of local growers and producers in the Turks and Caicos and eventually began the first organized local sourcing program.

As he did in the islands, where he helped start a government-sponsored farmers’ cooperative, Jones has launched a system in Vermont to aggregate supply from smaller than industrial-size Vermont growers. It’s called Grower’s Hub and serves as an online platform where mid-size growers can list the products they have for sale each week.

Vermont farmers log onto the site and input the amounts and types of produce they have available for sale to a supermarket. Produce buyers for supermarkets log on and browse what’s available from the 5 to 10 suppliers offering product at any given time. If there’s a match, the grower drops off his or her wares at a designated hub. The produce is kept there until supermarket trucks pick it up and distribute it to regional stores.

“Large chain buyers are used to looking at two or three computer screens and punching in numbers, not calling small growers to see what they have available,” Jones says. “This frees up the farmer to do their own thing.” Last year, Grower’s Hub facilitated $750,000 in sales, with buyers paying a fee to Grower’s Hub for the service.

••••

Even though VT Hydro works in a heated greenhouse environment, it’s still been cost-prohibitive to grow all 12 months of the year. Instead, they’ve kept it to 10. Their final harvest occurs the second week of December, and local salsa maker Gringo Jack’s comes and gleans the green tomatoes.

Then, Jones and his growers plant again at the end of January, transplant seedlings in February, and harvest at the end of March. Vermont Hydroponic’s beefsteak tomatoes grow in batches, as opposed to fruiting all the time.

“We’re not saying don’t eat tomatoes from January to March,” Jones notes, “but we’re saying we haven’t been able afford to grow tomatoes in the northern climate 12 months.”

Still, experimentation continues. VT Hydro is in a new partnership with Burlington-based Carbon Harvest Energy to take hydroponic produce to another level. Carbon Harvest specializes in aquaponics, which raises organic tilapia fish in a controlled aquaculture environment. A Carbon Harvest facility in Brattleboro is slated to open imminently and VT Hydro will be experimenting with growing produce there using gray water from the aquaponic operation (although not tomatoes, which don’t do well in the nitrogen-rich water).

If it’s successful, the project will be fully replicable. “We want to build a 10-acre facility in Manchester, NH, and an even larger one in Monticello, NY,” Jones says. “This is the golden door. It’s a closed loop, completely sustainable and a renewable food-production model.”

It also has the potential to create hundreds of new jobs in the region. “I think it’s absolutely great that people are creating serious businesses and serious jobs where there were none by growing good stuff locally,” says Estabrook.

By bringing state-of-the-art hydroponic growing together with renewable energy, closed-loop systems, and a web-based selling platform, Jones and Vermont Hydroponic are making the pleasure of eating fresh, healthy produce all year a reality—and making some “island waves” in the local food system.

About the Author

Jeffrey Gangemi

Jeffrey Gangemi

Jeffrey Gangemi is a writer and marketing leader working to advance sustainability and creativity in business. He lives in Shelburne with his wife and 15-month-old baby, Maya Beatrice.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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