Indoor Grower with 262 Acres Under Glass Takes Hydroponic Greenhouse Growing to 21st Century Levels
January 24, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
Greenhouse gardening might be a technology dating from Roman times (the emperor Tiberius reportedly enjoyed greenhouse-raised cucumbers daily), but Village Farms has taken their brand of hydroponic greenhouse horticulture to 21st century levels.
The publicly traded company was born some 25 years ago when CEO Michael DeGiglio was selling agricultural hardware to commercial greenhouses and decided to try his own hand. His first hydroponic greenhouse facilities covered a mere 10 acres. A couple of decades later, Village Farms facilities cover some 262 acres, providing fresh tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to major retailers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada under the Village Farms® and Home Choice® brand names. Last year, the company saw more than $160 million in sales.
Hydroponic growing entails the delivery of precise amounts of nutrient-enhanced water to vegetable roots plugged into a coco-fiber base, in a constantly circulating rotation that is sterilized and fed to the plants four times before it leaves the greenhouse and irrigates surrounding fields where cattle graze. Because the greenhouses are climate-controlled, there is no water lost to evaporation. And growing in a sterile medium means no soil-born bacteria that contribute to outbreaks of e. coli or other diseases.
“Growing greenhouse vegetables hydroponically as we do affords a number of environmental efficiencies that maximize our yields,” company Marketing Manager Helen Aquino said. “One 30-acre greenhouse can give you 30 times the yield of traditional fields.”
The company’s greenhouses are also located close to local markets to lower the environmental impacts of transportation. According to Aquino, the company also invests in agricultural research to improve yields without sacrificing sustainability. Village Farms also employs integrated pest management programs that utilize beneficial insects to control the ‘bad bugs.’
“It’s a fully integrated system,” Aquino said. “A lot is a testament to the technology. For example, our greenhouses are heated by boilers. We capture any CO2 emissions to feed back into the greenhouses. Any agriculture is labor intensive. But you must have a critical mass to make it economically viable.”
“But the business had to be economically viable before it could be environmentally viable,” she explained. “So it’s a happy ‘coincidence’ that we can be both. We like to say that our products are good for the earth, and they’re good for business.”
A lot of that viability came thanks to the research of DeGiglio’s business partner and former company president Albert Vanzeyst. Coming from a country that specializes in greenhouse horticulture, the Dutch agriculturalist realized there was tremendous opportunity in a nation that has to feed 300 million plus citizens.
DeGiglio eventually took his greenhouse operations to the far west deserts of Texas, a land of intense warmth and plenty of cloud-free days. Here, in their Marfa and Monahans facilities, they employ proprietary technology that creates an entirely encased biosphere (greenhouses located elsewhere have vented glass rooftops), which allows better climate control.
Although they are investigating expansion into different vegetable crops, their current supply of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers are well served by the set-up. These vine-bearing plants are pruned so that one shoot can run 30 feet high. Aquino said they could operate year round, but that the plants create better yields if they are ripped out once a year and allowed to re-germinate.
The cost of such technology doesn’t come cheaply. Aquino estimated that one 30-acre system (the “minimum viable footprint”) runs about $1 million per acre. Their Monahans facility cost about $43 million, bringing jobs and tax revenue to the tiny, West Texas town.
“I think we’re the largest contributor to their county tax base there, and we are the largest single producer of tomatoes in the state,” said Aquino.
The financing demands to start such operations on this scale are the biggest barrier to production, she said. “It’s kind of kept us a niche market.”
Other challenges come from simple competition.
“All greenhouses are not equal,” Aquino said. “Ours have a high level of food safety and offer premium product, though. It keeps us ahead of the game.”
Aquino believes greenhouse agriculture represents the future.
“I think there’s no doubt that controlled agricultural environments are something that all farmers will have to look at as land and water resources become scarce,” Aquino said. “We’re now working with seed researchers to match the highest yielding varieties to meet the tastes of our consumers. It will also take consumer and industry education. Agriculture is the roots of the world.”