Tim Heydon touched the brick of proprietary soil in the first room.
“Everything we do is USDA-certified organic, and it starts with the soil system,” said the CEO of Shenandoah Growers, Harrisonburg, Va., one of the largest commercial indoor fresh herb growers in the U.S.
“We’re bringing nature indoors, creating an ecosystem with the optimal conditions to thrive.”
As North American greenhouse vegetable growers of all kinds expand and adapt, this company has jumped on board whenever an indoor growing technology’s cost dropped and efficiency improved.
Shenandoah Growers started in 1989 as a field herb farm. When Heydon came on board in 1998, the company had $1 million in sales with 20 employees.
Gradually, the company evolved from field and low-tech greenhouse growing to a more controlled environment indoor growing system in 2008. Now, Shenandoah does more than $120 million in sales, with 1,200 employees.
Today, the company has a 35% share of the national organic fresh herb retail market, Heydon said. Its products, such as living herbs, fresh-cut herbs, lettuce and microgreens, are in 23,000 retail stores in all 50 states. They’re also launching organic purees to easily flavor dishes.
Heydon gave a tour on a recent February morning, showing the fully-automated seeding, the humid, dark germination room, the brilliant LED nursery and then the larger rooms, some using LED lights and some using sunlight, where the crops are finished before harvest.
Shenandoah Growers controls the plant’s climate from start to finish, including the use of a nitrogen-nutrient rainwater recipe that recirculates through the irrigation system, providing the plant the most minimal amount it needs to keep it hardy.
“What we’re trying to do is improve the yield and lower the cost. That’s what got us into full indoor growing,” Heydon said.
Still, the company retains some of the natural, biological processes found in the field and in low-tech greenhouses.
“Today’s customer wants more transparency than ever, and they want authenticity. So that’s why it’s important that we work with nature and not dominate nature,” Heydon said.
Operating under its Sunset label, Mastronardi Produce, Kingsville, Ontario, has thousands of greenhouse acres across North America with divisions also in Texas, Florida, Michigan and California.
A 72-acre glass greenhouse under construction in Oneida, N.Y., will increase its U.S. foothold to seven locations, said Jennifer Wheatley, Mastronardi’s communications manager.
In all, the company has 4,000 acres of production capacity.
Like others, Mastronardi is diversifying with berries. A new partnership with BerryWorld means a new line of berries will launch in 2019, Wheatley said.
Greenhouse growing is riding the wave of consumer demand for homegrown produce — but with year-round availability.
“Mastronardi’s network of Sunset greenhouses are strategically located to shorten the distance from vine-to-store, increasing local access to flavorful tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and berries,” Wheatley said.
Founded on the same local, year-round greenhouse principle, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Gotham Greens also offers extreme localness, but with a hydroponic growing system and sunlight except for when sensors tell the supplemental lighting to kick in during those couple of gray winter months.
Gotham has five greenhouses throughout New York City and Chicago, with several more planned in other states.
That expansion will grow its employee base from 160 to 400 and add 500,000 square feet to its existing 200,000 square feet of production capacity, said Viraj Puri, CEO and co-founder, as he sat overlooking the fresh, fragrant basil and baby arugula at Gotham’s smallest greenhouse, the one built atop a Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn.
There, transportation from farm to retail shelf is mere steps.
Unlike the vining crops that dominate production at Mastronardi, Village Farms and Mucci Farms, Gotham focuses on greens and herbs that require less growing space, which better suits the urban locations.
“Not all square footage is equal. It comes down to space and efficiency and the yield you can get per square foot,” Puri said.
Like the others, he enjoys a faster growing time compared to the same crops grown in fields — due to optimal, controlled conditions.
“Consumers like the idea of locally grown products. It’s fresher, lasts longer and could potentially be more nutritious,” Puri said.
“Retailers and food service benefit too: They’re throwing less away, so they don’t have to eat that cost.”
Gotham supplies retailers such as Key Food, Target, Shop Rite, Foodtown Amazon Fresh, Jet and Fairway Market, and food service such as Sysco, Delta, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Hospitality Group.
The consistent reliability of greenhouse production means, despite wrinkles in supply year to year, it’s a trend to stay, said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association. Ontario contains 80% of Canada’s greenhouse vegetable production.
“Protected agriculture is going to feed the world, well into the future,” Sbrocchi said.
“Global warming to blame or not, extreme weather is playing havoc on us these days, and that’s field growers. You’re much more able to control the environment with greenhouses.”