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Rooting for a Local Tomato
It is hard to wait unitl midsummer to cut into a garden fresh, bright red tomato. However, it's difficult to get that juicy ronato in the Midwest before June or even July. This is where MightyVine comes in. The company has a solution: growing tomatoes in its 15 acre Rochelle, Illinois, greenhouse.
It all started about six years ago, when Local Foods, a partner distribution company to MightyVine, started sourcing products directly from local farms to restaurants in Chicago. However, it became apparent that sourcing fresh produce year-round, especially in winter, would be a challenge. So as a solution, Local Foods looked to a Dutch company, Royal Pride Holland, which grows 140 acres of tomatoes under glass.
A partnership developed to bring seeds, technology, and expertise to the U.S. In 2014, construction started on MightyVine’s 7½-acre greenhouse; the first harvest was available in October 2015. In 2016, MightyVine doubled in size to 15 acres.
In the greenhouse
The tomato seeds originate in the Netherlands. They’re taken to a propagation greenhouse in Canada and then brought to Rochelle. Inside the greenhouse, tomato plants are on tables suspended from crop wire, hanging about 15 feet high. Rain and snowmelt from the roof are collected and stored in a 1-million-gallon retention pond. That water is cleaned (UV treated), and through drip irrigation, the 200,000 tomato plants are watered numerous times per day. The drain water is then captured and reused for the same process, eliminating any agricultural runoff.
“Through this process, we are able to use only 10% of the water that field-grown tomatoes use,” says Danny Murphy, vice president of sales at MightyVine.
MightyVine also utilizes integrated pest management. Beneficial bugs, such as ladybugs, naturally combat the predators (like white flies) that come into the greenhouse. Bumblebees are also used as natural pollinators for the plants.
“Cherry on the Vine” and “Tomato on the Vine” are the two tomato varietals grown by MightyVine. The company is the only North American grower that produces these specific varieties.
“The quality of the tomato has gone down because of the transportation needed to bring tomatoes to the Midwest,” says Murphy, “Our goal is to provide a great-tasting tomato to the Midwest from the Midwest, year-round.”
Because of the location of the MightyVine greenhouse, transportation is easier and shorter to local Midwest markets. Restaurants and grocery stores in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa have access to the MightyVine tomatoes.
“What’s exciting for me is hearing the stories and seeing what people can cook with our tomatoes,” says Murphy. “We are creating emotions around a tomato, which isn’t something that you do. So it’s cool and unique to hear about these feelings created about our product.”
As for the future, Murphy believes that greenhouses will become more popular for growing produce.
“There are many great resources in the Midwest, so why should we grow something far away if we can grow it nearby?” asks Murphy. “We can provide better-tasting options that are transported fewer miles.”
The next time you cut into a bright red “Tomato on the Vine” tomato, think about the story behind it. It’s a story with quite the flavor.