Greenhouse-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and colored bell peppers continue to gain market share, importers and shippers say.

Demand for greenhouse-grown product continues to go up, said Bryant Ambelang, president and chief executive officer of San Antonio-based Desert Glory Ltd.

Desert Glory expects to expand its production by about 20% this season with new greenhouse construction in the Nayarit region of Mexico, Ambelang said.

And it"s not just Desert Glory that"s enjoying greater demand for protected ag.

"Every retailer I talk to says growth in greenhouse-grown is significant," Ambelang said.

"It"s predictable, it"s safer, it"s more sustainable you use less water and fertilizer."

One thing retailers love about greenhouse is they can lock in supplies with producers for six months in advance, Ambelang said.

And with companies like Desert Glory, they have the added predictability of contract pricing secured in advance.

Chris Ciruli, a partner in Nogales, Ariz.-based Ciruli Bros. LLC, expects across-the-board increases of as much as 30% in supplies of greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers from Mexico this season.

"Markets were good last year, and growers had the capital to add to their facilities space-wise," he said. "It"s fairly aggressive."

Demand for the 2010-11 season started to pick up in early December, as colder weather began to phase out deals in competition with the Mexican greenhouse deals, Ciruli said.

Thanks to greater demand, Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group expects its greenhouse vegetable category to grow by 15% this season, said Aaron Quon, the company"s greenhouse vegetable category manager.

In the field-grown versus greenhouse debate, people definitely take sides, said Mike Aiton, marketing director for Coachella, Calif.-based Prime Time International LLC.

Fortunately for Prime Time and its Coachella Valley and Mexico greenhouse deals, greenhouse remains a popular option for many.

In fact, for some it"s becoming more popular than ever.

"Different customers have different preferences as to what they like, but demand is good," Aiton said.

"Greenhouse continues to grow. The pepper category especially the coloreds have shown steady, consistent growth the last few years."

Growers of greenhouse, shadehouse and other controlled-environment vegetables continue to benefit from consumers" increased concern for food safety, and for customers" need to have a consistent supply of product available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, Aiton said.

"Protected environment is in wider use," he said.

"It helps control against pests and diseases, and offers a much longer growing season."

The initial investment in getting a greenhouse vegetable program up and running is huge, Aiton said, but the investment is such a good one, companies can earn it back relatively quickly.

In fact, in some cases growers can"t get greenhouse up fast enough.

"As the category continues to grow, the industry struggles to keep pace," Aiton said.

People are willing to pay more for greenhouse-grown, Aiton said. Besides, he said, when it comes to cost, it"s all relative.

"They"re still a bargain," he said of greenhouse products.

All you have to do is look at the increasing number of options to see the success of the hothouse pepper business, Aiton said.

"People are adding other SKUs," he said.

"It"s indicative of the overall growth in the colored bell category as the years have gone by."

When it comes to Prime Time"s greenhouse colored bell foodservice customers, demand tilts toward the lower-quality choice-grade product, Aiton said.

It"s a question of quantity versus quality, Aiton said. When the peppers are cut, cooked and presented with other foods, it"s less important that they achieve the eye appeal so essential to retail marketing of produce.

"Foodservice is more interested in volume," he said.

The growing demand for greenhouse peppers that Aiton has noticed in recent years applies to retail and foodservice.

"Every restaurant has peppers on their menu now," he said.

And it"s not just white-tablecloth restaurants and family dining establishments, either, Aiton said. Even fast-food has caught on that colored bells are an item that is growing in popularity with U.S. consumers and greenhouse product plays a big role in meeting that growing demand.

December promises to be a month of brisk movement and strong demand for Western greenhouse product, Aiton said.

Particularly compared to the winter of 2009-10.

"Last year, higher Canadian and Mexican production drove the price down," Aiton said Dec. 2.

"This year, I expect the price to be high for the next four weeks. Between now and Christmas is a peak period."

After the holidays, and looking further ahead, Aiton expects a return to normality after last season. While greenhouse pepper supplies were plentiful last winter, the historic freezes in the southeast late last winter and last spring produced just the opposite effect.

Peppers that normally would have been allowed to continue growing until they went from green to red, yellow and orange were harvested green to fill the void left in Florida.

Aiton doubts if that scenario will repeat itself in 2011.

"We should be able to feature more colored bells this season," he said. "We expect a more normal year than last year."

Greenhouse product is not only more uniform and of higher quality, said Danny Mandel, a principal and chief executive officer of Nogales-based SunFed. It"s also more sustainable, requiring less water and fewer chemicals and fertilizers than open-field agriculture.

Food safety concerns and more emphasis on quality are the major factors driving demand, which continues to increase, said Alberto Maldanado, general manager of Nogales-based Apache Produce Co.

"There"s less and less open-field and more and more greenhouse and shadehouse" production, Maldanado said.

Volumes should be up significantly across the board to meet increased demand this season, said Matt Wright, director of procurement for Leamington, Ontario-based Westmoreland Sales.

The company expects a similar mix, percentage-wise, of beefsteak tomatoes, tomatoes on-the-vine, cucumbers, English cucumbers and colored bell peppers, Wright said.

Consistency and quality continue to drive higher greenhouse sales industry-wide, Wright said.

"Retailers are able to get something they can really count on," he said.

Greenhouse-grown also appeals to that most important of produce consumer gauges: their eyes.

"Consumers tend to still base what they buy on what looks good, and hothouse can control how it looks," he said.