Appetite for innovation

Features - Cover Story

Bushel Boy’s expansion adds space for R&D, increased production and new product offerings.

September 19, 2022

Chuck Tryon, Bushel Boy president
Photos courtesy of The restaurant project| Adobestock

For most of its 32-year history, Bushel Boy Farms produced greenhouse-grown tomatoes from a single facility in Owatonna, Minnesota. Over the last few years, the operation has expanded both its product offerings and its geographic footprint to provide local produce to a wider market.

Since its 2018 acquisition by Rahr Corp., a Minnesota-based company best known for its malting business, Bushel Boy’s new owners have been investing in significant growth. That includes opening a new research and development greenhouse in Minnesota, a new production facility in Iowa, and introducing strawberries to diversify its portfolio.

“For the better part of 30 years, we grew nothing but tomatoes. Now we’ve successfully added strawberries to that mix, and we’ll continue to look at other varieties and other product categories to provide the best experience we can,” says president Chuck Tryon, who worked for brands like Pillsbury and General Mills before joining Bushel Boy in late 2020. “We pride ourselves on being a local provider of fresh produce, and I leave every day feeling really proud of what we deliver to customers.”

Innovation space

The recent growth streak started by building a 4.5-acre R&D greenhouse next to Bushel Boy’s 28-acre legacy site in southern Minnesota. The research facility offers space to trial new plant varieties, different crop categories and cutting-edge technologies.

For example, current technology trials include high-definition cameras to track plant growth and identify pest and disease pressures. The facility is also testing different lighting types and intensities to supplement greenhouse production in winter.

“Traditionally, our greenhouses used high-pressure sodium or HPS lighting. We’ve been expanding into a hybrid lighting system that involves both HPS and LED lights,” Tryon says. “We see good yield increases with that change in lighting technology, and the LEDs are more efficient from an energy standpoint. But we likely won’t do a complete switch to all LEDs for the simple fact that the plants benefit from some of the additional heat that comes from the HPS lights during those extremely cold winter months.”

Product innovation is the focus of the R&D greenhouse, allowing Bushel Boy to experiment with new varieties of tomatoes and other crops. Exploring entirely new categories has been the research facility’s biggest initiative so far — paving the way for their entry into the berry business three years ago.

“Growing strawberries was the first big challenge for us,” Tryon says. “It was a challenge of, not just whether we could grow something that we traditionally hadn’t, but also if we would be accepted as a brand that means something more than just tomatoes. There was both a commercial and a production element to it.”

Bushel Boy eased into strawberries with a small production space inside the R&D greenhouse that gradually expanded each season to its current size of just under two acres. This limited scale allowed the team to maintain quality as they launched a new product.

“We want to make sure that what we put in the market is reflective of the quality reputation that we’ve developed over 30 years of growing tomatoes,” Tryon says.

Three seasons into growing strawberries, Tryon says the market’s response has been strong. Now, the company is starting to plan next steps to determine whether they’ll convert existing greenhouses or build new dedicated facilities once the strawberries outgrow the R&D space.

Tryon sees more potential to expand within that category. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity to be a year-round local provider of fresh berries,” he says. Meanwhile, the company also continues “evaluating the next crop we could add value to,” he says — mentioning cucumbers and peppers as examples of crops that could grow alongside tomatoes.

Initiation in Iowa

After building the R&D facility, Bushel Boy’s new owners invested $35 million to construct a brand-new site in Mason City, Iowa, the company’s first location outside its home state. The 16.5-acre greenhouse opened in December 2020, with 33 additional acres available for future expansion. The new facility was built to be as efficient as possible — leveraging the latest technologies to control lighting, irrigation, temperature and more.

The Iowa site was also designed to maximize essential resources like water. For example, plants grow suspended on gutters that collect excess drip irrigation. “That’s captured in that gutter system and put through filtration and UV sanitation, and then that goes right back into the irrigation system,” Tryon says.

The facility also includes a collection system to capture rainwater and snowmelt, which feed into an underground retention pond that serves as the site’s primary water source. This water, similarly, goes through filtration and UV sanitation treatments before entering the irrigation system.

“We rely almost exclusively on that source of water in Iowa,” Tryon says. “Managing that resource as responsibly as we can is important, not just for the environment but also for our plants.”

Bushel Boy’s staff in Minnesota played a critical role in launching the Iowa facility by helping with construction of the site, such as installing heating pipes and hanging gutter systems, in addition to training the new staff.

“We don’t necessarily have to duplicate all of the talent we have,” Tryon says. “We can have specialists who share their knowledge at both sites. We can efficiently move experience back and forth when we need it, and we can also move teams of employees around if we’re shorthanded.”

For example, functions like quality and food safety and environmental health and safety are centralized to ensure consistency from site to site. “We want to make sure that both facilities are following the same protocols, so the quality of product is identical between the two,” Tryon says. “We’re often supporting the same set of customers out of both sites, so having that consistency of protocol is important.”

The growing side of the operation is similarly decentralized, with one head grower overseeing production across both locations. While there are “some subtle differences just based on the age of the two facilities,” Tryon says, “the ultimate goal is having consistently high-quality produce, regardless of which site it’s coming from.”

Community building

Labor is critical to Bushel Boy’s operation — which employs about 115 people in Minnesota and 55 in Iowa. The single biggest challenge of the company’s recent expansion, Tryon says, has been finding labor to support the growth. Labor shortages have forced the company to get creative with its recruiting efforts. In Minnesota, Bushel Boy relies on current employees to communicate job opportunities to their friends and family, offering $500 referral bonuses to encourage word-of-mouth recommendations.

“That’s our most successful means of not just attracting, but more importantly retaining people,” Tryon says.

In Iowa, however, Bushel Boy didn’t have the advantage of a loyal workforce to help spread the word. Instead, the company has embedded itself into the local business community through outreach, educational events, and tours to promote job growth at the site. For example, this summer, the greenhouse hosted about 50 leaders from the Mason City Chamber of Commerce. In September, the Iowa greenhouse hosted a group of emerging ag professionals through a program sponsored by the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

“They wanted to see what the plants look like and what really happens here, so we’re capitalizing on that interest and curiosity to get people excited,” Tryon says.

Local growth

Before the recent expansion, Bushel Boy’s market extended from Minneapolis-St. Paul as far east as Milwaukee and west into the Dakotas. Now, the new location in Iowa stretches the brand’s footprint all the way south to Omaha, Kansas City and St. Louis, and eastward into Chicago. By staying focused on these neighboring states, Bushel Boy maintains its locally grown, fresh-picked promise while still increasing its geographic reach.

“Our value proposition is that we are truly vine-ripened,” Tryon says, noting that stickers on Bushel Boy’s tomatoes identify where produce was grown. “We’re supporting retail stores in relatively close proximity, so what’s being picked today can be on store shelves tomorrow.”

While there were obvious operational challenges in expanding this footprint, Tryon says one of the biggest adjustments was “the mindset shift” that had to happen internally to position the brand for growth beyond Minnesota.

“The growth we’ve had is from a hyper-local, single-site, single-product category produce grower to a more regional, multi-product category produce company,” he says.

The key to building buy-in for this growth was involving the Minnesota staff in the Iowa expansion. Simply seeing the new high-tech facility come to life gave the team a tangible glimpse of the company’s vision. “The benefit of bringing knowledge from the legacy site to the brand-new site really worked in both directions,” Tryon says, “because it made the expansion real.”

Similarly, being able to see — and taste — the fruits of Bushel Boy’s expansion into strawberries helped employees internalize the company’s breakthrough into a new category. “Having something that tastes as good as these strawberries do also helps fuel the excitement within our team,” he says.

That taste, he hopes, will usher Bushel Boy’s ongoing growth. Looking forward, Tryon sees more growth opportunity ahead.

“You won’t hear me say that greenhouse-grown produce is the future of agriculture, but I will always say it’s one of the futures of agriculture,” Tryon says. “Being able to take food miles out of the system and supply produce locally — but at a large scale — is an important balance for this industry.”

Brooke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.