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Five Acre Solar Panel Array, Water Conservation Help Hydroponic Tomato Operation Generate Sustainable Return

February 24, 2012 |

Casey Houweling, CEO of Houweling's Tomatoes at the Camarillo, CA greenhouse facility

The owner of Houweling’s Tomatoes has more than plump, red, juicy fruit on its mind—the hydroponics greenhouse tomato grower is also thinking about the planet.

Casey Houweling is the owner of the Delta, British Columbia-based company, which derives from a business his father started in 1956. While the company is headquartered in Canada, much of the sustainable magic happens at its Camarillo, Calif., year-round greenhouse growing facility, where renewable energy is produced, heat is generated and water is conserved.

At the glass greenhouse facility—which covers 125 acres of land—five acres of photovoltaic solar panels provide one megawatt of electricity, which is equivalent to removing 300 cars from the road, according to the company. Electricity is used on-site and also sold to the grid.

For water conservation, a four-acre on-site retention pond captures rainwater and runoff, which is then cleaned, re-circulated and then reused through computer-monitored drip irrigation. The company also collects waste heat from the refrigeration equipment, solar thermal equipment and irrigation water which it in turn uses for the greenhouse, a process that replaces natural gas.

When it comes to recycling, Houweling’s Tomatoes recycles and reuses more than 90 percent of its waste. The company generates an estimated 15,000 tons of organic matter a year.

Solar Field that powers Houweling's greenhouse facility in Camarillo

“We’re going to be looking at how we can get up to 100 percent,” Houweling said, noting that a couple large sources of recycled waste are coconut fiber used as a growing bases and plant matter. “It can be used for soil amendments, or it can go to a trees nursery where they … use it in their soil mixture for trees.”

Houweling says he believes that his Camarillo site is one of the most high-tech greenhouse operations in the world. It was the first large-scale commercial greenhouse in the lower mainland of British Columbia, and it was the first large-scale vegetable greenhouse in California, according to the company’s Web site. (The tomato moonlights as both a fruit and a vegetable, depending on whom you talk to.)

Houweling’s Tomatoes was one of 16 companies and organizations to be given California’s 2011 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in (GEELA) for their contributions to California’s environment and economy.

The Tomato Shift

The Houwelings business wasn’t always focused on tomatoes. It started in 1956 by Dutch horticulturalist Cornelius Houweling, Casey Houweling’s father, as a small floral greenhouse and berry farm in Langley, British Columbia.

Casey Houweling joined the business in 1976, and he and his brother bought the company from their father in 1979, he said. The business took a different focus after that. In 1985, Houweling, decided to buy farmland in Delta, British Columbia, where he built a 6-acre greenhouse for growing beefsteak tomatoes. He used hydroponics, a method in which plants are cultivated in a nutrient-rich solution, in water, rather than in soil.

“I was in Holland, and I’d seen what the guys were doing over there in the tomato industry,” Houweling said. “I thought if they could do it there, we should be able to do it here in Canada.”

By 1993, that had expanded to 50 acres of greenhouse-grown tomatoes. In 1996, Houweling built a greenhouse facility in Camarillo after looking for a place where he could grow all 52 weeks of the year. Over time, Houweling’s brother, along with the floral business focus, exited the company.

Inside of Houweling's Greenhouse facility in Camarillo, CA

Now Houweling’s Tomatoes has seven tomato varieties: large tomatoes on the vine, orange and yellow tomatoes on the vine, beefsteak tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes, strawberry tomatoes and grape tomatoes. The business generates about $150 million in revenue a year with annual revenue growth generally set at about 10 percent, Houweling said. It has about 450 employees at its Camarillo site and about 200 employees at the Delta location.

Houweling said that while the Delta site serves as the company’s headquarters, most of the company’s administrative staff is located at the Camarillo site, which handles two-thirds of the business’ operations. The Delta site is also home to the company’s commercial propagation operation, where seedlings are germinated, grafted and grown to shippable sizes. Tomatoes are grown there seasonally.

Houweling, who splits his weeks between both locations, places his bets on the controlled methods of greenhouse hydroponics, which involves using a computerized system to constantly monitor things such as temperature, humidity, water, light and carbon dioxide levels. The company’s most recent 40-acre expansion, which included most of the sustainability features and was completed in late 2009, has an overpressure feature, Houweling said. That means air blows outward through the insect screens, helping to keep pests out.

“The reason you do hydroponics is because you have control,” Houweling said. “You can give the plants the amount of water they need, and you can give them the nutrients they need.”

He estimates that using hydroponics allows the company to produce at least 24 times the amount of tomatoes as would be grown in traditional field farming with the same amount of space.

Another benefit of hydroponics is disease control, he added.

“You put new material in, your new coconut fiber, which is what we use every time (we) put in a new crop, so it prevents disease pressures and nematodes,” he said. “If you can prevent (disease), then obviously you don’t have to treat it, and treating it is where all the issues come in.”

Houweling doesn’t claim that his operation is organic. He uses chemical fertilizers along with natural ones, and he uses chemical pesticides when absolutely necessary. He estimates his chemical pesticide use amounts to about 3 percent to 4 percent of the use by comparable field operations.

Ed Beckman, president of the certification organization North American Greenhouse Hothouse Vegetable Growers, said Houweling’s operation is on the cutting edge of an industry that is still largely being shaped. He noted that Houweling’s Tomatoes is one of three active founding partners in the Bellevue, Wash.-based organization, which aims to create safety and sustainability standards for greenhouse and hothouse growers through a certification program that Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) is currently testing.

“California was never thought of as being a location where a greenhouse could in fact be successful,” Beckman said. “If you look at the growth over the years that Casey Houweling has enjoyed in Camarillo and the advancements he has made, including their pressurized greenhouse, he pretty much set the bar.”

West Coast Focus

Houweling’s tomatoes reach customers throughout the United States and have even traveled as far as Japan. However, most of the tomato sales (at least 70 percent), are for outlets on the West Coast. The idea is to be more local than national or international in order to keep the food mileage down and to provide fresher, more flavorful product, Houweling said.

One West Coast customer includes Costco USA. Keith Neal, a produce buyer for the retailer in Seattle, said Houweling’s Tomatoes’ can be found in Costco stores all over, but mostly in stores in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

“We like the greenhouse story. We’ve migrated out most of our tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers over to the greenhouse and hothouse-grown,” Neal said, noting that growing in greenhouses helps protect from things like pesticide drifts and harsh weather. He also brought up another benefit: “Greenhouse-grown for the most part, with a few exceptions, is picked more red than field. They’re not picked green and shipped to ripening facilities like the majority of the (field) market does.”

Other major retailers that sell Houweling’s Tomatoes’ products include Costco, Safeway, Vons Ralphs and Bristol Farms.

Going forward, the company expects to grow its customer base in the food service sector. Houweling also has plans to add to its sustainability features. By June, he expects to start running an 8.8-megwatt heat-and-power cogeneration technology system at the Camarillo site, which would serve as an on-site energy plant. The system, expected to be the first of its kind in the United States, would capture heat, water and carbon dioxide for use within the greenhouse that would otherwise go to waste.

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