Norwalk Reflector: Ohio's greenhouses helping people eat local now and in future

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Ohio's greenhouses helping people eat local now and in future

By JD Malone • Aug 13, 2018 at 12:18 PM

WILMINGTON — Along the gravel lanes of rural Clinton County, you can see the past and present of Ohio agriculture.

Rolling green fields of soybeans and corn stretch to the horizon.

The future of agriculture is here, too.

A 170,000-square-foot greenhouse, wrapped in green metal siding and topped with hundreds of glass panels, squats beside a cornfield across from the Wilmington Air Park. The $10 million project is the fourth greenhouse built by BrightFarms, a New York company that also operates greenhouses near Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Wilmington Mayor John Stanforth, a Clinton County native, pondered the BrightFarms greenhouse.

"This is not the agriculture I grew up with."

Inside the building, kale, spinach and a variety of lettuces — romaine, scarlet, cristabel and others —grow on Styrofoam boards floating in ponds that are 50 feet wide and 325 feet long.

It takes about two weeks for greens to go from seed to salad mix. There also are herbs, such as basil and cilantro. BrightFarms can harvest 2,000 pounds of salad greens a day, and have them in stores across Ohio in 24 hours. The greenhouse in Wilmington celebrated its first harvest Aug. 3.

It's local produce at industrial scale.

" 'Local' is the No. 1 demand driver in produce," said Abby Prior, BrightFarms vice president of marketing. "At this farm, we will grow the freshest and most sustainable greens in the state."

BrightFarms might have the newest greenhouse in Ohio, but it is far from the first.

In the past three years, a handful of enormous greenhouses have risen in Wapakoneta, Delta, Huron and other small towns in Ohio. Those hulking operations, like the $22.5 million, 20-acre spread built by Golden Fresh Farms in Wapakoneta last year, specialize in tomatoes.

Ohio isn't alone, either. The sprouting of mega greenhouses growing produce is happening across the U.S., said Brian Sparks, senior editor of Greenhouse Grower, a trade publication that covers the industry.

"This is really taking advantage of the local-food movement," Sparks said. "They provide year-round local produce, and the demand for that is only going to increase."

Most of the new greenhouses grow tomatoes and peppers, but BrightFarms found its niche in salad greens, which the company finds more profitable than other produce.

"We don't grow tomatoes," said Josh Norbury, BrightFarms director of operations.

The hothouse tomato business is booming and bound to get even bigger, after Wendy's announced earlier this year that it plans to switch all of its tomato sourcing to greenhouses across the U.S., including at least one in Ohio.

Sparks sees this shift happening for several reasons.

One is that vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers are very susceptible to weather changes and storm damage. Greenhouses eliminate those variables and give growers a more reliable harvest.

Greenhouses also reduce food-safety concerns — though they do not eliminate them — because almost every element of the production cycle can be controlled and monitored.

Ohio's position at the crossroads of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast has been attractive to greenhouse companies, Sparks said. Big population centers are within easy reach, giving tomatoes grown indoors near Sandusky an advantage over those imported from Mexico.

The growth is likely to continue.

Marysville-based Scotts Miracle-Gro has invested $1 billion in hydroponics over the past few years. The company aimed its investments at the lucrative and booming medical and recreational cannabis markets, but also sees big potential in greenhouses.

"There is a bigger market here, in Canada and Europe, there is a big market for indoor grown plants, produce," said James Hagedorn, Scotts CEO. "It isn't just pot."

No doubt, companies see the potential.

Nature Fresh, another tomato operation, has 45 acres under roof in northwest Ohio. Mucci Farms, in Huron, plans to triple its 24 acres of greenhouse in the coming years. Golden Fresh Farms trumps them all with plans to expand its Wapakoneta operation tenfold.

Greenhouses growing food on this scale might be new, but Ohio has long been home to a large horticulture industry, with greenhouses supplying flowers, shrubs, perennial plants, trees and other nursery products for much of the Midwest.

Ohio ranked fifth in horticulture production in 2015, behind California, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The state also soon will be home to greenhouses growing a new crop — cannabis — as the state's medical marijuana campaign is aiming to have Ohio-grown marijuana available by the end of the year.

Ohio grows lots of crops outdoors, of course. The agriculture industry contributes more than $100 billion a year to the state's economy, including soybeans, corn, tomatoes and peppers.

Greenhouses will never replace traditional agriculture, but they can extend the state's short growing season. In a greenhouse, all year long it's California's central valley, where much of the nation's produce is grown.

It's also pretty straightforward.

"It's wonderful. We can control every aspect," said Lee Muhlenkamp, production manager at BrightFarm's Wilmington operation. "All of this is very high-tech, and we can run the whole thing on a smartphone."

BrightFarms didn't build its greenhouse with a list of buyers in its back pocket. It liked Ohio's big urban markets and the state's position as a major distribution hub for a host of retailers.

BrightFarms thinks its product — a pesticide-free, locally grown salad mix — will find space in stores across the state.

Muhlenkamp agrees. Before coming to BrightFarms, he was the produce manager at a local Kroger store. The lettuce coming from California, Mexico or Arizona is, at best, five to seven days old when it reaches the Midwest.

"This leaves here in 24 hours," he said. "In every way, this is a better product. This has to be the future."

If so, the future is now.


©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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