It takes green to be green, but funds for new, sustainable produce facilities and significant upgrades are in short supply.
“The last two years have been really challenging trying to get work going,” said Ernest Mill, president of Salinas, Calif.-based Mill Construction Co.
In 2007, before the recession, Mill completed work on four produce facilities. Through July 2011, on the other hand, Mill’s projects in the produce industry have been limited to an office remodel for Fresh Express and a small job for Taylor Farms.
Mill said he was running budgets for several produce clients, but none of the projects were in the engineering phase.
“Unfortunately, a lot of them are in budget mode and not being constructed,” he said. “The economy is taking its time recovering.”
For clients willing and able to make the investment, there are innovations available that can help companies make long-term savings by reducing their energy consumption, Mill said.
“Some folks are using trimmings and waste and converting it into energy with fuel cell technology,” he said. “What would have been waste fed to pigs or thrown away is making energy. That’s pretty extreme, taking straight trash and making electricity.”
Gills Onions LLC, Oxnard, invested $9.5 million on a biowaste project that the company says will pay for itself in five years.
According to Gills’ website, the project provides 75% of the company’s energy needs and saves the company up to $60,000 a month in energy costs and $500,000 in annual costs that Gills previously spent on eliminating waste.
“They were first,” Mill said. “There are others looking at it. It’s pretty expensive to install.”
Solar power is another option that more companies should consider, Mill said.
“Solar is becoming more affordable and making more sense,” he said.
“There were enormous arrays of PV panels that took up huge amounts of space and were unsightly. Now, manufacturers are getting more creative.”
A less complicated energy-saving option, Mill says, is converting metal halide light fixtures to light-emitting diode, or LED. Mill said LED products have improved and now are viable alternatives to metal halide in cold-storage facilities and processing plants.
While some of Mill’s clients are waiting out the weak economy, others in the industry are pushing forward with projects that focus on sustainability.
In May, Chicago foodservice company Testa Produce Inc. opened a new 90,000-square-foot distribution center that features several environmentally friendly elements, including solar panels, a “green” roof with vegetation and a system that collects rainwater.
A wind turbine that will supply 30% of the facility’s power is expected to be implemented later this summer, according to president Peter Testa.
In June, Village Farms International, Delta, British Columbia, broke ground on its fifth Texas greenhouse. Like Testa’s center, the new facility will draw on wind power.
Marketing manager Helen Aquino said that 40% of the new greenhouse’s energy needs would be generated by wind power.
Village Farms will use supplemental lighting in one of its greenhouses for the first time, reducing the amount of natural gas required for heating. The added lighting also will increase winter volumes, which in turn will reduce the amount of product the company will need to transport into the region from other growing areas, vice president of applied research Paul Selina said.
New York-based BrightFarms LLC also has some new ideas about greenhouses. The company is working with four retailers on projects that will put hydroponic greenhouses on the roofs of retail stores.
“We call this ultra-local,” said chief executive officer Paul Lightfoot.
BrightFarms will design, finance, build and operate the greenhouses. The company then will sell its products — including lettuce, greens and tomatoes — directly to the stores below.
Another new idea in retail comes from a small company in Austin, Texas, that hopes to become the nation’s first zero-waste grocery store. Brothers Lane LLC aims to open In.gredients this fall. The micro-grocery store will focus on local product from the Lone Star State and will offer virtually every item it sells without packaging.
“The goal is that everything will definitely be from within Texas, ideally from Travis County or surrounding counties,” partner Christian Lane said. “There are a lot of growers in this county that can supply us.”