Vermont Hydroponics Seeks to Grow Tasty Local Tomatoes in Less Space
Written onOctober 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.