It started as a hobby, but high-tunnel growing of basil and tomatoes has become a business that Brawley, Calif.-based Jack Bros. Inc. and Jack Family Farms intend to expand.
Seed suppliers and San Joaquin Valley nurseries got a boost in business from co-owner Alex Jack when he prepared 100,000 square feet of high tunnels for plantings.
Jack compared it to Noah’s ark. The list of crops he took on board had no obvious rhyme or reason: peach, nectarine and avocado trees; heirloom tomatoes; melons; eggplant; and herbs, among other things.
In winter Jack Bros. Inc. typically concentrates on broccoli for D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California and other crops for brands like Taylor Farms and Gills Onions. It farms about 4,000 acres.
But there came a time, Jack decided, to try some high tunnels on a piece of that.
“I just have always liked experimenting and playing with things on the side,” he said. “Then when I saw how well the herbs and tomatoes were doing, I decided to tear out all the trees and increase my square footage.”
With planting two-thirds finished, an unfortunate turn of events left Jack and his partners —– Russell Jack, his son, and Greg Peyser — tempted to tear out their hair as well.
“We had 100,000 square feet last March, and six days after we finished we stood back and had a barbecue to admire what we’d done,” Alex Jack said. “Then 60-mile-per-hour winds blew it down, and we got to practice rebuilding them.”
They stabilized the tunnels by ad hoc means and managed to finish the crop. When summer came, everything was rebuilt.
“We reinforced the whole setup, cementing it in and using stronger poles,” he said. “If they blow away this time, the whole ranch is going to go with it.”
As winter neared, the total rose to 130,000 square feet. Two thirds of the sheltered crop is herbs, mostly basil with a hint of mint. One third is grape and cherry tomatoes.
The plastic-covered high tunnels keep crops warm.
“Growing basil in winter here is not a problem,” Jack said. The project is on his home ranch.
The effort is just starting to get sales moving, but the partners are ambitious.
“I expect to have probably 35 acres of high tunnels within three to four years,” he said. “I would expect in 10 years to be rivaling the best herb companies in the business.”
For Jack Bros. Inc., 2012 also marks 100 years in business. Alex’s grandfather Earl Jack and Earl’s brother Alvin Jack were also among the founders of Western Growers Association.