Over the past decade the flavor profile of hydroponic and of organic greenhouse tomatoes has improved dramatically.
“Not all tomatoes are created equal, nor do they have the same taste and flavor profile,” said Peter Quiring, president and owner of Nature Fresh Farms. “There are many varieties, shapes and colors of greenhouse tomatoes available today and some are far superior to field tomatoes.
“Growing mediums have changed over the years, and the greenhouse tomato industry has ballooned in the last 10 years with dozens upon dozens of new varieties introduced to the market,” he continued. “Greenhouse seed trial and development has also blossomed during this time. Unique flavor profiles have been developed, product usage has expanded and we have developed tomato experiences.”
Quiring noted that greenhouse tomato marketing has also changed the landscape for consumption. Greenhouse vine-ripened tomatoes are picked at the right stage to maximize flavor and freshness. Greenhouse technology provides for the most consistent quality, flavor and production possible, and the sustainable aspect of greenhouse tomato growing is significantly different than field-grown tomato production.
“Greenhouse technology has changed the life of a tomato,” Quiring explained. “In some instances greenhouse tomatoes have become superior compared to that of the field-grown. It depends on two basic things. One is the growing method, like using the right quantity and quality of nutrients and maintaining excellent plant health in the right climate. The other is variety. Some varieties are bred purely for yield, and these are usually flavorless water balls. But others are bred specifically for flavor. They typically yield less, but they are superior in flavor.”
Nature Fresh Farms trials over 300 varieties every year.
Douglas Kling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Village Farms LP, credited the development of cross-breeding techniques with the great flavor of today’s greenhouse-grown tomatoes.
“Seed companies have figured out ways to bring out the best in acid balance and Brix levels,” said Kling.
Kling pointed out other advantages to greenhouse-grown tomatoes, including that greenhouses use 85 percent less water, are highly sustainable, conserve soil, avoid erosion and use integrated pest management with no or limited chemicals.
“Building a greenhouse is a very expensive proposition,” said Kling. “People who work in our greenhouses make a fair wage and receive benefits. Today’s consumers are willing to pay for high-quality, safe food, especially when they know that the people who are growing their food are being paid fair wages and are treated fairly.”
Jim DiMenna, president of Red Sun Farms, said there’s no question but that hydroponic and greenhouse organic tomato flavor profiles have improved tremendously over the years.
“Today we have the ability to choose high-flavor varieties and grow them properly to enhance the flavor,” he said. “We pick those with flavor profiles that are perfect for what we aspire our tomatoes to taste like.”
DiMenna explained that the greenhouse industry started by basically growing Beefsteak tomatoes, and then added cluster tomatoes. Specialty tomatoes arrived on the scene next with cherry, grape and other types, all with high flavor profiles.
“We spent a lot of time getting size, color and shelf life down to a science, and then we started talking about flavor,” said DiMenna. “We can now offer great-tasting tomatoes that still have the same other attributes. We’re well on our way to having a real global initiative of producing a better tasting tomato.
“The challenge the greenhouse industry faces today is educating consumers so they can differentiate a hydroponic and greenhouse organic tomato from field-grown,” he continued. “These are key terms we need to better communicate to the public so they will recognize the labeling and make decisive choices when buying them.”
“A better flavor greenhouse tomato starts with seed development,” said Jimmy Coppola, account manager and marketing director for West-
moreland-TopLine Farms. “Today more flavorful seed varieties are sought out, and seed companies are meeting the demand with new varieties touting better flavor profiles.”
He concurred with others that greenhouse technology has also advanced, and that enables better mixing and distribution of the nutrient-rich water the plants are fed.
“The locally grown movement has also helped the greenhouse tomato industry,” Coppola stressed. “The closer to home the tomatoes are sourced the riper they can be when harvested, unlike gassed-green tomatoes harvested prematurely and ripened on the ride over. Fruit harvested ripe always tastes better. Now that greenhouses are spread wide and far, consumers are recognizing and enjoying this advantage.”
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers organization, headquartered in Leamington, ON, has proudly represented the Ontario greenhouse vegetable sector since 1967. It recently released its 2015 Fact Sheet, providing a concise overview of Ontario’s current greenhouse production.
OGVG represents all greenhouse tomato, cucumber and pepper farmers in Ontario. It regulates the licensing of all growers, packers and marketers of Ontario hydroponic greenhouse growers.
Its farmers practice integrated pest management — utilizing good bugs to manage the bad bugs — and introduce bumblebees to pollinate tomato and pepper crops.
The hydroponic, controlled greenhouse environment enables Ontario’s growers to produce a uniform product that minimizes waste and maximizes yield and quality.
The farmers also undergo annual third-party food safety audits to ensure they comply with all food safety standards.
The 2015 Fact Sheet states that over 70 percent of its farmers’ produce is exported to the U.S., which is less than one day’s drive from the majority of markets they serve in both Canada and the U.S. Of total growers, 43 marketers sell Ontario greenhouse produce to retailers and foodservice operators across North America.
OGVG’s members produce English (seedless) cucumbers, mini cucumbers, red, yellow, orange and specialty peppers, tomatoes-on-the-vine, Beefsteak and specialty tomatoes.
Today there are 211 farms in Ontario that grow greenhouse vegetables, spanning 2,553 acres of greenhouses.
By commodity, Ontario production of tomatoes represents 36.7 percent of greenhouse production on 936 acres; peppers represent 35 percent of production on 891 acres; and cucumbers represent 28.3 percent on 726 acres.
From 2014 to 2015, the Ontario greenhouse sector grew by 149 acres, or 6 percent. The total farm gate value of production in 2013 was $783 million. The sector accounts for over 13,000 employees.
OGVG also stays progressive for its members. In mid-January it announced the launch of a new website targeting consumers and other potential users of Ontario greenhouse vegetables at www.OGVG.com.
Key features of the new site include a cleaner and more attractive design along with a more engaging user experience with enhanced search and navigation capabilities.
George Gilvesy, general manager of OGVG, stated in a press release that the organization’s goal was to design a website that would be a definitive resource and guide for those people seeking information about Ontario greenhouse vegetables.
“We’re excited to launch our new website targeting the consumers of our members’ best in class produce,” said Gilvesy. “We are hopeful that it will provide the public the information they are looking for to make Ontario greenhouse vegetable products top of mind when making their produce selections.
“Check our site often to stay current on new information,” he continued. “The new website design offers a fresh and simple look with easy navigation to social media pages. It features how to select produce, nutrition tips, storage of produce, consumer tips, print or download recipes, videos, contact information and optimization for mobile devices.”
Support for the development of the new website came from the province of Ontario through the Local Food Fund.
Homegrown Organic Farms has announced its sublicense agreement with The Giumarra Cos. to grow and distribute the recently announced DulceVida proprietary line of premium stone fruit.
The agreement with Giumarra grants Homegrown Organic Farms with specific rights to grow and market certified organic product, and the San Joaquin Valley-based grower will have access to all Nature’s Partner DulceVida stone fruit varieties.All DulceVida organic production under the sublicense will be distributed by Homegrown Organic Farms and all conventional production will be distributed by Giumarra.
“We are thrilled to have access to the DulceVida proprietary program," Scott Mabs, chief executive officer of Homegrown Organic Farms, said in a press release. "Giumarra has always been on the cutting edge of varietal development and we are proud to work with such a well-respected company."
Homegrown Organic Farms expects its first commercial organic crop of organic DulceVida varieties to be harvested in 2016.
“Homegrown’s organic supply of DulceVida stone fruit will naturally complement Giumarra’s DulceVida conventional tree-ripe program,” Jeannine Martin, director of sales for Giumarra Reedley, said in a press release. “In our planning for retail and customer expectations, we recognized the organic piece as a key part of servicing retail markets. We are proud to work with such a well-respected company as Homegrown Organic Farms.”
Stephen Paul, sales category manager for Homegrown Organic Farms said, “The DulceVida fruit eats exceptionally well and we are anxious to get into our commercial organic production. I think our customers will be pleased with the uniqueness of this line and this addition will only enhance the already diverse Homegrown stone fruit program.”
A report published by Farm Credit Canada, updated in December 2012, titled Update on the North American Greenhouse Industry, states that the North American greenhouse vegetable industry operates in a dynamic market where growers must balance consumer demand for high-quality, low-cost vegetables with the need to keep their own operating costs in check.
Canada, Mexico and the U.S. will remain target markets for growers well into the future. The report states that Mexican competition challenges Canadian, and U.S. growers to compete against operators with advantages in labor costs, regulatory requirements and weather conditions. For example, in addition to high tech hydroponic greenhouses, Mexico's greenhouse vegetable industry also uses low-cost shade house construction, giving growers there a competitive advantage over field-grown production through improved water and pest management, an extended harvest and increased yields. Shadehouses are also more cost-efficient to operate than enclosed hydroponic greenhouse facilities.
With its recent rapid growth, Mexico's greenhouse vegetable production is now three times that of the rest of North America. But in recent years, greenhouse overbuilding in Mexico has led to the demise of some businesses. Overbuilding began as a result of previous government programs that provided grants for protected greenhouse vegetable construction. Some operators entered the sector without adequate production knowledge or marketing channels, and lacked realistic business plans or sufficient capital.
Canada's greenhouse vegetable sector has become a major player in the North American marketplace and now has a leading market in the U.S. Hydroponic greenhouse construction in the U.S. in on the rise, and much of that new construction is being done by Canadian greenhouse companies.
Canadian greenhouse companies have held firmly to their market even against competition. They have persisted through trade actions, energy crises, economic downturns, exchange rate fluctuations, food-safety issues and escalating input costs.
The Canadian greenhouse vegetable industry has succeeded because it is led by operators who, according to research by Zbeetnoff Agro-Environmental Consulting, are world leaders for several reasons. They effectively use integrated pest management and innovative greenhouse technologies as well as new technologies that improve their operations by increasing water and energy conservation. Canadian hydroponic greenhouse producers also grow superior quality specialty vegetables with higher flavor and color. And they have improved traceability and food-safety systems to meet the demand of today's buyers.
A review of Canadian, Mexican and U.S. vegetable markets points to the continued strong growth in demand for greenhouse vegetables, and likely at the expense of field grown vegetables. The increasing volume of greenhouse vegetable sales indicates that consumers are receptive to greenhouse products, and historical pricing patterns show that greenhouse produce continues to provide value that isn't always offered by field-grown alternatives. But it is also notable that hydroponic greenhouse production is, at least for now, limited in the number of crops that can effectively be produced, and at acceptable market prices.
The quality of field grown and low technology protected crops is good and continues to improve. But in what hydroponic greenhouses do produce, primarily tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, they match the quality of even the highest quality field-grown products.
Production timing further differentiates greenhouse products in the marketplace. Greenhouses provide more protection and controlled growing environments than are possible in field grown conditions, which are susceptible to climate changes and other unpredictable weather conditions.
The hydroponic greenhouse sector is gaining a reputation for highly effective food safety protocols and outstanding reliability. For a growing number of food industry distributors and retailers, the costs associated with weather disruptions, food safety issues, customer requirements and recalls in field agriculture are simply too expensive. As a result, they're adopting zero-tolerance approaches to risk in their procurement strategies.
Still, the price for which greenhouse products can be sold in relation to the field-grown competition remains a determining factor for consumers, and although demand has increased, prices per kilogram or pound of greenhouse vegetables are declining as a result of stiffer competition from both imported and field-grown vegetable growers.
Over the last decade, the greenhouse sector has profitably employed marketing strategies such as increasing its product mix and developing year round supply relationships and alliances, leading growers and distributors to consolidate to service large retailers. Canadian greenhouse growers have taken significant steps in trialing new varieties, growing proprietary varieties and diversifying into new products. Consumers continue to show interest in organic greenhouse vegetable production and some are prepared to pay a premium for these products.
Local produce is increasingly well received, and even demanded by consumers and foodservice operators who perceive it to be better quality, and they are committed to supporting companies in their local communities. Today's smaller-scale greenhouse operations have significant opportunities to capitalize on this by supplying niche markets and regional populations that larger operations can't accommodate. Niche markets are increasing as growers implement marketing strategies focused on providing what consumers want: local origin, taste and color appeal, smaller sized produce and packaging and convenience.
Farm Credit Canada's report suggests that, in the near future, quality-driven production will be a requirement for all competitors. Increasing supply chain integration and building business-to-business relationships are proven methods of acquiring and keeping markets.
Several operations in British Columbia, Ontario and other Canadian provinces have opened facilities in the U.S. to increase their winter production, decrease shipping and energy costs and take advantage of the 'Grown in the USA' label. Distributors in Canada have and continue to contract with Mexican hydroponic growers to obtain greater volumes and increase their ability to offer products year round. This, in turn, allows them to further increase their presence in the U.S. market.
Steve Grinstead, former chief executive officer of Pro*Act, has launched The Grinstead Group, which will specialize in executive placement, financial and succession planning, and other business strategy development services. The Dallas-based company will serve companies and professionals across the food industry.
With over 40 years of serving the fresh produce industry, Grinstead’s connections with and knowledge of the entire supply chain equip the new company to make an immediate and positive impact on the groups and individuals with whom they engage.
Executive placement and alignment comprise one area of specialty for Grinstead’s new venture. “People are most every company’s best assets,” Grinstead said in a press release.“Finding experienced and skilled professionals is only one component of the executive placement process, however. We specialize in aligning companies and executives to ensure a proper behavioral and cultural fit.”
The Grinstead Group, which also includes Michael Grinstead, who recently graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in marketing, has also developed a proprietary process for optimizing businesses and teams. The specialized business optimization process focuses on team analysis, succession planning, financial preparedness, and merger-acquisition planning.
“I feel very blessed to have called the fresh produce industry ‘home’ for my entire career,” Grinstead said in the release. “Throughout that time, I have had a wide range of experiences, all of which taught me valuable lessons that now enable me and The Grinstead Group to help companies successfully navigate challenging business decisions and emerge stronger and better prepared for future growth.”
The Grinstead Group will be developing additional business services specific to the food industry and customized specifically for client goals and needs. For more information about the company, visit www.thegrinsteadgroup.com.