A fresh opportunity

Features - Cover Story

NatureFresh Farms’ high-tech expansion into the United States raises the bar for local food and sustainability.

Left: John Ketler, general manager of farm production at NatureFresh Farms; Right: NatureFresh Farms CEO Peter Quiring.

On Jan. 6, 2015, NatureFresh Farms, a 150-acre vegetable greenhouse operation in Leamington, Ontario, announced that it would be making its way to Ohio to develop an additional 180 acres — a move that generated buzz from all ends of the industry. Exactly one year later, the NatureFresh team gave Produce Grower a glimpse into the first 15-acre greenhouse of what will eventually become a 180-acre project, dedicated to growing finished tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for the eastern region of North America.

Upon completion, the Delta, Ohio facility will produce more than 132 million pounds of produce each year that will be sold in stores within a 10- to 12-hour shipping radius.

At the same time, NatureFresh’s sophisticated production methods offer a model for other North American growers interested in more efficiently using automation, and incorporating more sustainable practices and traceability into their operations.

Crossing the border

When determining a destination for NatureFresh’s expansion, Ohio was an obvious fit, according to NatureFresh’s CEO Peter Quiring. “We believed that since a big percentage of our Canadian production is sold in the U.S., we needed to have a U.S. presence … Some of our biggest customers are in Ohio or close to Ohio,” Quiring says.

In addition, its close proximity to Leamington (a quick, three-hour drive across the Canadian border), business-friendly atmosphere and — most importantly — affordable electricity, were also all attractive factors.

“We cannot afford the [lighting] electricity in Ontario — and quite frankly — the infrastructure is outdated, and therefore it’s not even available in our area,” Quiring says.

The implementation of lighting allows for the opportunity for the new Delta facility to grow year-round, a capability the Ontario greenhouses don’t have.

The closeness to Leamington also enables John Ketler, NatureFresh’s general manager of farm production, to make the trip down once per week to check in with employees and oversee operations.

Another added location/efficiency bonus: The Delta location, about one mile from the exits of two major highways, makes NatureFresh the perfect pit stop for drivers of regional supermarket chains to fill their empty trucks with produce on their way back to their distribution centers, saving on carbon emissions while eliminating a significant chunk of NatureFresh’s shipping responsibility.

“Food-miles wise, it’s fantastic,” Quiring says. “Why should we have extra cost and diesel going into the air when we can do it with trucks that are going [through] here anyway?”

A NatureFresh employee tending to tomato plants on a South Essex Fabricating motorized cart

Building a produce community

While the construction of NatureFresh Farms in Delta is predicted to bring about 300 jobs to the area, the need for manual labor has significantly decreased because of NatureFresh’s automated elements. Each 15-acre greenhouse will have a mere 30 employees handling its operations.

And that’s important, because labor is still one of NatureFresh’s top costs, Quiring says. Quiring also reports that each employee in both the U.S. and Canada is paid “well above” minimum wage, with benefits — a luxury many greenhouse owners aren’t able to offer their staff.

“People think that if they’re buying a tomato, it was picked in a sweatshop-type field operation somewhere with unsanitary conditions and for minimum wage. All of that is not true with us,” Quiring says.

“We actually have a reward system. People get paid for what they do, not just because they’re there. So it’s not minimum wage. Now we can help them to become very productive, and therefore pay them more,” he says.

“It’s very much a group, team, family atmosphere,” says Chris Veillon, NatureFresh’s director of marketing. “We have growers that come back here year after year.”

Creating a custom system

When designing the greenhouse structure, the company didn’t have to go far for its expertise. Quiring founded NatureFresh’s sister company, South Essex Fabricating, in 1994. South Essex played a major role in most of the structures and components of the greenhouse, from the walls that hold the greenhouse together, to the tubular heating rails that line each row, to the mechanically operated carts that ride along those rails.

The carts are essentially scissor lifts that can maneuver the rows atop of the heating rails. The employees can press a pedal with their feet to move themselves up or down the row. They can also adjust the height of the cart to reach the highest point of the plants as they grow. The carts are even branded with NatureFresh’s signature blue and green hues.

A row of tomato plants in NatureFresh's Delta, Ohio facility

In addition to the easy-to-maneuver cart system, NatureFresh’s advanced Priva climate control and management system will send text notifications to growers if something in the greenhouse requires their attention, such as a temperature drop. All that data is stored on a database where growers can then compare and make future decisions based on those readings.

The packing system, too, is mostly hands-free. Automatic unloading, box handling and palletization are all already integral parts of NatureFresh’s operation in Canada that will be brought to Delta.

A recipe for growing success

Delta’s first tomato plants have been growing 10 inches taller each week in a coconut fiber growing media. The first fruit — a new variety under the “Ohio Red” line called Endeavor — will be ready to harvest between the last week or February and the first week of March.

The square pallets of coconut fiber mounted on the rows will double in number when growers begin to interplant the tomatoes.

“Essentially, at two times throughout the year, we have an old crop in there producing tomatoes and a new crop that is just coming on board. Then when the old plant is done, we drop it on the floor and hopefully will continue to pick on the new crop above it. The idea is to eliminate any down time…so that we will consistently be harvesting some type of production.”

A pallet of coconut fiber-based growing media with irrigation lines

Watering the plants is done entirely through drip irrigation, which decreases the risk of disease and slipping and falling because floors are mostly dry. Each greenhouse will be split into six zones that may all be watered on their own schedule. The rows each have two sets of irrigation hook ups: one for adult plants and one for the interplanted baby plants.

“The baby plants obviously require a different nutrient mix and a different volume of watering than the mature plants that are in full production. When the old crop comes out, then that watering system is idle, and so we interplant again,” Quiring says.

NatureFresh’s closed-loop watering system and its storm water retention ponds adjacent to the greenhouses also help to conserve water.

To address another water-related issue, NatureFresh has installed a dehumidification system that will dial down many of the disease issues that might build up in the greenhouse. The added benefit is extra heat. “[The system] will take the energy that we’re already using and recycle it and take more heat out of the water. It will be heating the greenhouse through that dehumidification [process],” Quiring says.

NatureFresh is also teaming up with Blue Scope Steel, a steel manufacturer located next to NatureFresh’s facility in Delta, to use their waste heat and CO2 to fuel their own operation once the infrastructure is built.

“We’re hoping to have that negotiated and for them to have that engineered and built for two years from now,” Quiring says. In the meantime, NatureFresh’s own stored CO2 is also heating the greenhouse.

The Delta greenhouses will all use diffused glass in order to obtain a more even light distribution to all the plants. The walls and roof also have double screens.

“Based on the outside conditions, how cold it is, how windy it is, [growers will] decide if they want to save some energy or start to open it up and start to heat up the greenhouse,” Veillon says.

NatureFresh's Priva Climate Control system.

Experts in IPM

NatureFresh’s Ohio team also prides itself on its Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, one that’s already been used successfully at the Leamington operation. “The good bugs eat the bad bugs,” is the phrase you’ll often hear in NatureFresh’s marketing phrases, referring to their use of beneficial insects. These “good bugs,” such as ladybugs, help kill aphids, spider mites and other types of greenhouse pests.

“What we typically try to do is always have some bad bugs. We’re OK with that as long as we have some good bugs to keep it in balance,” Quiring says. “It’s really very much like reproducing nature or like mimicking what nature does … If we kill off all the bad bugs 100 percent, the good bugs have nothing to eat, [and] they die too. Then if there’s a swarm that comes in, you just don’t get that balance.”

We're out there promoting a unified message that greenhouse produce is the most flavorful, consistently available product there is year round." — Chris Veillon, director of marketing

Each scouting employee also carries an iPhone with iMessage capability, equipping them to text managers and other IPM managers instantly if they see an unusual pest throughout the different phases of production.

Good bugs of a different kind also scour the greenhouse on a mission. Bumblebees are ordered from both Canadian and U.S. companies to circulate through the greenhouse and complete the pollination process. Bumblebees are more efficient and cost-effective pollinators than humans or machines. Ketler says that if not for the bumblebees, 480,000 flowers would need to be pollinated every day once all the greenhouses go up, requiring that 680 employees complete the job manually by grabbing hold of each plant and vibrating it with their hands.

Track it

What’s most significant — especially in 2016, a year that’s being labeled “The Year of Food Safety,” is the ability for NatureFresh to track a single package of tomatoes down to the exact row it was grown in, time it was picked and which employee picked it.

NatureFresh increases its efficiency by using bumblebees to pollinate the flowers of tomato plants. The company utilizes three different companies in the U.S. and Canada to supply bumblebees, which will pollinate 480,000 flowers in the greenhouse daily.

“We have case-level traceability back to the root,” Quiring says.

NatureFresh’s Priva system keeps track of this activity with handheld scanners. Each employee is equipped with a scanner that they’ll use to “check in” and “check out” of each row in which they’re working. The scanner is held in front of a cluster of scan discs with labeled duties like “Separate plants,” “Hang twine,” and “Crop row debris.”

NatureFresh also conducts mock recalls, a situation in which a package of their produce is picked at random from one of its customers — whose origin is known only by its food safety coordinator — and is required to be tracked as quickly as possible. The company has been able to accomplish this task in less than 30 minutes, Quiring reports. Responding quickly to a recall is essential in order to prevent further outbreak.

A tomato variety from NatureFresh's new "Ohio Red" line, called Endeavor
Photo courtesy of NatureFresh

Getting the word out

NatureFresh’s marketing efforts span across many different mediums to directly reach the end consumer. The company’s goal is to be “overly transparent,” Veillon says, to help educate consumers about greenhouse systems.

One way NatureFresh promotes itself is through a mobile greenhouse called the Greenhouse Education Center that stops on busy streets, garden centers, schools and grocery stories to engage with consumers. The mobile greenhouse hit the road in 2015 after the announcement of the Delta facility.

Veillon and Quiring can sometimes be found in front of the greenhouse, which is filled with tomato plants, showcases its naturally ventilated roof and gives people a small-scale look at how greenhouse tomato production works. Passersby are even shown the basics of the irrigation system, what type of growing media is used, how bumblebees help the crop — and they’re also allowed to snack on the tomatoes fresh off the vine.

“We understand that the Greenhouse Education Center is going to benefit the entire industry. And not just NatureFresh. We’re out there promoting a unified message that greenhouse produce is the most flavorful, consistently available product there is year round,” Veillon says in a promotional video posted on NatureFresh’s Vimeo channel.

A NatureFresh employee checking out of the greenhouse after completing a task using a handheld scanner that logs and records activities.

In the grocery store, consumers can also get engaged with the product through what NatureFresh calls a “Tom Bar,” a concept similar to a traditional olive bar, but in this instance, with snacking tomatoes of different varieties that can be combined at a fixed price per pound.

Plus, with Facebook followers up to about 34,500 and Twitter followers at about 3,600 at press time, NatureFresh has a solid platform to engage with its communities. Social media campaigns like #FrankieFresh, an elf-on-the-shelf doll that humorously makes his way through the greenhouse at Christmas time, along with the use of up-and-coming social sharing avenues like Periscope, NatureFresh is on the forefront of reaching the social media-savvy public.

The company has also found success through its “eat brighter” campaign, in partnership with the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), which allows NatureFresh to pair cheerful Sesame Street characters with their own fresh, colorful produce and packaging.

Overall, the step is a big one toward year-round, local vegetable production.

“What this means for the industry is that NatureFresh is starting to become a major player in the game,” Veillon says.

NatureFresh broke ground on Phase II of construction on Jan. 12, 2016, another 15-acre greenhouse that will be complete in early fall 2016.