Written by: Ellie Wilson, MS RDN Senior Nutritionist
This week, I had the great pleasure of visiting Jeff Jones at Vermont Hydroponic Tomatoes in Florence, VT. The directions to the farm brought me over 3 miles down a winding side road with few houses. As I drove down the driveway, the GPS kept telling me to turn around when I could make “a legal u turn” in that encouraging/demanding computer voice. There was no need – I had arrived at the farm. But there was no barn, no tractor, and no duck pond – three long white plastic sheet-topped Quonset huts greeted me, along with the buzz of insects in the sun.
I have a question for our farmers about game-changing technology or practices that they see as significant – this farm is using some of the most cutting edge techniques. Hydroponic farming – a farming technique that relies on a closed water-based planting system, is actually old technology enjoying a rising popularity for a number of reasons. As population increases, pressure on land and water availability has turned into an opportunity for hydroponics to create local agriculture in many parts of the world. A number of Caribbean islands use hydroponics because they rely primarily on rain for fresh water, and have to import produce. This is where Jeff first encountered it, after a unique career. Rising from being a produce clerk in a traditional food retailer, a produce manager at 18, and being recruited to improve produce programs in a variety of island settings after making changes at one retailer on Nantucket that topped all sales records, Jeff has some great insights on best practices. He is passionate about the possibilities hydroponics offers, especially with water conservation – hydroponics uses 1/3 less water than conventional farming. He has helped Price Chopper be the first retailer to grow cherry tomatoes inside a store. Talk about innovating fresh!!! It is also very safe – this operation has both GAP and SQF certification, which makes the farm one of the strongest in food safety practices in the Northeast.
The operation and the tomatoes are eco-friendly – the plants are started in little rock wool holders in January, moved into larger containers as they grow, then placed on ground coconut husks to anchor the plants. The nutrients they need are added in to the water that is circulated through the system, a hive of bees at the back of the farm building pollinates the tomatoes, and they are harvested from March through December. No pesticides are used in production, and the packaging is also post-recycled material. The operations are also very energy efficient.
Jeff chooses two types of tomatoes, beefsteak and cherry, based on taste and sugar content (degrees Brix again!), as well as resistance to disease. In our stores, you will find their display at the end of the tomato section of produce, beautifully ripe and flavorful. They work with the Vermont Food Bank, donating when excess is available. This operation has created about 10 jobs, and its sister operation in Quebec has created about 40 more. Price Chopper is their primary customer, but they also work with other retailers in the Northeast, keeping it regional to manage costs and ensure the best quality tomatoes are in stores.
Jeff is looking hard at the future too – currently navigating the permits and politics around partnering with a biomass energy company, Beaverwood, in Fairhaven, a little south of their current location. This partnership would allow them to expand to a 10 acre site, and to tap into the warmth the biomass facility sheds as a byproduct of their energy generation, warmth vital to growing tomatoes in Vermont. It’s a great opportunity for synergy.
I learned much of what I have shared here while enjoying fresh tomatoes sliced with basil and a cherry wood smoked fresh mozzarella that just rocked – (I immediately shared that item with our cheese manager when I got back!). Jeff’s favorite recipe is to take one of the beefsteak tomatoes, hollow it out and chop up the centers, then mix with crab meat and Cholula sauce. Serve over greens, and enjoy each burst of flavor as it comes together, with a glass of wine to finish the fun. I can’t wait to try it!