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    12. Hydroponic Tomatoes

    23, 2006
    by Dan Sorenson
    Arizona Daily Star

    It's tomato heaven.

    In a valley 75 miles east of Tucson, perfect tomatoes, millions of them, powered by sunlight and juiced on spiked water, climb a 265-acre indoor forest of string.

    Three hundred and sixty-five days a year they're turning sun and water into money at Eurofresh Inc.'s hydroponic greenhouses 18 miles north of Willcox.

    The Dutch founders of Eurofresh started in Willcox in 1990 with just 10 acres under glass, but they keep expanding. Another 53-acre greenhouse complex is set to open in the fall, said Dwight Ferguson, chief executive officer of Eurofresh Inc. That will bring the size to 318 acres — about half a square mile.

    What's driving the expansion? Consumers, said professor Gene Giacomelli, director of the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

    "A tomato is not a tomato anymore," Giacomelli said. "It's a beefsteak tomato, or a TOV — tomato on the vine; it's a yellow tomato, a grape tomato, a cherry tomato or even a new tomato that's a Campari."

    Hydroponic tomatoes have gone from owning 38 percent of retail sales just three years ago to 49 percent today, Ferguson said. He declined to specify his company's sales.

    "Trends are good," Ferguson said. "This company has been able to take advantage of that trend in the market."

    But so far, only Eurofresh has done so in this area, at least on a massive scale. The nearby Willcox Greenhouse, also a tomato grower, is just 7.5 acres and produces 100,000 pounds of tomatoes per week.

    Eurofresh, by contrast, produces about 2.9 million pounds a week, Ferguson said. And it represents roughly a third of the total hydroponic greenhouse acreage in the country.

    Nutrients go to the roots

    Hydroponic growing refers to using a manipulated nutrition system — in the case of Eurofresh, 16 nutrients added to water — supplied directly to the plant's roots. The roots grow in an inert medium, usually "rock wool," an insulationlike material that adds nothing to the plant's nutrition.

    Hydroponic techniques, usually employed in a greenhouse, control as many of the variables in a crop's growth as possible, including taste. With greenhouse heating and cooling to control temperature, only sunlight is out of the hydroponic grower's control.

    Eurofresh's glistening glass-and-metal complex in the high desert of Southeast Arizona is as good as hydroponic growing gets, Giacomelli said.

    The method has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, he said, but two things that happened in the last 25 years helped hydroponics take off — computers and plastics.

    Computers equipped with sensors can determine when plants need water, 24 hours a day, as well as which nutrients are needed, in what amounts.

    And plastics are everywhere in a modern greenhouse. The plant containers and the rectangular bars in which they sit are plastic. Even the strings suspending the tomato vines are plastic, he said.

    1,000 workers help

    Needs the computers can't attend to are carried out by about 1,000 workers, including 180 state prisoners.

    It's not the same backbreaking field work that is done in nearby chile fields. The vines, suspended from strings hung from the ceiling of the greenhouse, can be lowered so employees work at eye level — no stooping required.

    But there is a little climbing. Eurofresh workers cruise the rows of 8- to 10-foot tall vines on rolling scaffolds.

    It's an agricultural area, Ferguson said, with a supply of people living nearby who understand agriculture. But he acknowledges that Mexican immigrants come to work at the plant. Those he hires have green cards, he said.

    Maybe most important, he said, with year-round employment greenhouse workers "don't have to be migrant anymore. They have security where they can settle and move their family."

    A strike against Eurofresh by workers in 1999 resulted in their representation by Local 99 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

    Local President Jim McLaughlin agreed with the company's claims that workers are better off in a greenhouse than in an outdoor field.

    He said workers at Eurofresh make between minimum wage and $10 an hour, have a more comfortable environment than field workers, aren't exposed to chemicals and pesticides, and "can provide for their family with one employer."

    "But it's still one of the most difficult jobs in this country," he said.

    Growth slow in state

    Despite the growth in Eurofresh's sales and employment, the increase in hydroponics in Arizona is slow, Giacomelli said.

    Aside from Eurofresh's current expansion and just-announced plans for a new 25-acre greenhouse operation near Douglas by Tecumseh Professional Associates of Albuquerque, most of the growth in Arizona comes in smaller spurts.

    "The bulk of the (new) greenhouses are coming out of traditional field growers converting some of their land to greenhouses," Giacomelli said.

    Despite the wonder of hydroponics, it's easy to understand the slow growth, he said.

    "If you invest in a field, it's a few thousand (dollars) an acre," he said. "In a greenhouse you may invest up to $500,000 an acre."

    But even smaller producers can thrive.

    "We're growing the best-tasting tomatoes in Southeast Arizona," bragged Crystal Scheu of Willcox Greenhouse, the hydroponic tomato operation just down the road from Eurofresh.

    "It's a very friendly rivalry — actually it really isn't rivalry because they're so big," said Scheu, an administrator for the 34-employee operation.

    But even at 7.5 acres, Willcox Greenhouse is shipping about 100,000 pounds of its tennis ball-sized Tricia tomatoes each week, Scheu said.

    Hydroponics' future bright

    While Eurofresh ships all over the country, Willcox Greenhouse ships 99 percent of its output under the Sun Valley Farms name, a Colorado produce label serving the Rocky Mountain states and the Midwest.

    Despite the high costs, the future of Arizona hydroponics is bright, Giacomelli said. The water-strapped state's situation actually favors hydroponic operations.

    "We're using what the cotton industry is not using anymore," Giacomelli said. "Certainly we can use it more economically, because (tomatoes are) much more valuable than cotton."

    Eurofresh is careful with the water it pumps from the valley's aquifer, recycling what the plants don't use, CEO Ferguson said.

    A potential technological breakthrough could boost the industry by creating more nutritious "super tomatoes," Giacomelli said.
    "There is no limiting factor, except for this," Giacomelli said. "We need people who can manage these systems, who can understand how a plant grows in a controlled environment. There's jobs out there. We can't produce people fast enough."
    - Updated: April 24, 2006

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