The greenhouse industry is one of slow but constant change.
The newest facilities designed to grow fruits and vegetables indoors — oblivious to weather conditions outside — have the latest technology not only for feeding the plants just the right amount of nutrients but also for conserving energy and protecting the environment.
At the same time, lower-tech shade houses are proliferating in Mexico, where they now account for about half of the protected agriculture.
The next step, says Merle Jensen, professor emeritus of plant science at the University of Arizona and partner in Tucson, Ariz.-based Greenhouse Vegetable Consultants LLC, will be smaller greenhouses popping up to draw on the locally grown movement.
You’ll see more greenhouses near big cities as well as plastic “high tunnels” where a new generation of growers will produce food for local farmers markets and supermarkets, he says. Meanwhile, retailers continue to rely on greenhouse growers to provide aesthetically pleasing, flavorful product year-round.
Variety of sources
New Seasons Market, a chain of 12 stores based in Portland, Ore., offers product grown in glass greenhouses, like those prevalent in Canada and the U.S., as well as in shade houses in Mexico, says produce director Jeff Fairchild.
Vine-ripe tomatoes, English cucumbers, colored peppers and some chili peppers account for most of the company’s greenhouse product, with bell peppers showing exceptional growth.
“I think the pepper deal has increased significantly, especially the colored pepper deal,” Fairchild says.
The stores merchandise greenhouse items with their conventional counterparts.
“They sell themselves because their consistency in quality is very, very good,” he says.
He features greenhouse product on ad about once a month.
The chain sources from Canada in the summer, the U.S. in fall and from Mexico in winter.
Fairchild says he doesn’t see a big difference between the quality of product grown in shade houses and that of product from glass greenhouses.
In his opinion, greenhouse tomatoes and bell peppers look great, but he’s not convinced that their flavor is better than field-grown product.
“There’s something about having stuff grown in soil, affected by weather, that is hard to beat the flavor of,” he says.
Greenhouse sales have jumped about 10% in recent years at the Seattle Promenade location of Seattle-based Red Apple Markets, a chain of about 30 independently owned stores, says Jim Prim, produce manager.
He attributes the sales bump to more consumers cooking at home and including healthful salads on their daily menus.
Tomatoes are the store’s most popular greenhouse item
The market also offers red, orange, yellow and green bell peppers grown in greenhouses, as well as some cucumbers.
Prim stocks greenhouse produce whenever it’s available.
“It’s a good product,” he says.
He merchandises bell peppers in a 3- by 4-foot section.
Peppers are good sellers, he says, with green the most popular color, followed by red, yellow and orange.
He attributes the popularity of green peppers to their lower cost — 89 cents each or 2 for $1 on ad compared to $2.99 a pound or 88 cents apiece on ad for colored bell peppers.
Greenhouse product is featured in Red Apple’s ad about once a week.
He merchandises cucumbers in a 1-square-foot display.
The store offers several varieties of greenhouse-grown tomatoes, including cherry, on-the-vine, Campari, grape, yellow and cherry varieties.
“Tomatoes sell well here,” Prim says. “The shrink is not bad on them.”
Prim uses a sign kit to identify greenhouse product.
Clamoring for clamshells
New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, a group of five stores based in Buellton, Calif., features clamshell containers of greenhouse-grown conventional and organic butter lettuce and upland cress from Hollandia Produce LLC, Carpinteria, Calif., says John Odahara, produce director.
“They do real well, especially in California with the name recognition,” he says.
The stores also carry tomatoes and vegetables from Wholesum Family Farms, a Nogales, Ariz.-based company with greenhouses in Mexico and Arizona.
In all, the stores carry a dozen or more greenhouse items, many of which are grown locally.
Tomatoes are the best sellers.
“At any time, we can have a dozen different tomato products,” he says.
New Frontiers also offers greenhouse green and colored bell peppers and cucumbers.
Odahara intermingles greenhouse products with conventional ones.
“As we go into winter, (sales) always get better,” he says, since field product is not as abundant during the colder months as it is in the spring and summer.
Greenhouse prices often are compatible with or even better than conventional produce, he says.
It seems that most shoppers probably don’t know a lot about how greenhouse products are grown.
At Red Apple, “The main thing is quality,” Prim says. “If the product looks nice, they buy it.”
The store’s greenhouse tomatoes “look nice and red and taste good,” he says.
New Seasons Shoppers probably don’t know why greenhouse produce looks better, they just believe it does, Fairchild says.
“I don’t get a lot of feedback from customers or staff that it makes a difference to people,” he says.
Shoppers at New Frontiers Natural Marketplace are concerned with getting the best product for the best price, Odahara says, not whether something is greenhouse-grown.
While many retailers merchandise greenhouse products among their conventional counterparts, Vince Choate, director of marketing for Hollandia Produce, suggests creating a destination for shoppers by displaying all greenhouse products together, similar to how organic produce is merchandised.
However, Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif., thinks it’s probably best to display like commodities together.
“The colors of greenhouse products are very attractive,” he says. “They really do draw attention to themselves.”
Despite the tough economy, Mark Cassius, executive vice president of sales for Eurofresh Farms, Willcox, Ariz., anticipates further growth in the greenhouse category, largely because shoppers have become accustomed to having good-tasting tomatoes available year-round.
Growth should be especially strong in the snack category, he says.
Many suppliers will be expanding outside of traditional greenhouse commodities.
Growers can produce just about anything in a greenhouse, says Helen Aquino, marketing manager for Eatontown, N.J.-based Village Farms.
Village Farms may have some new items available in the future, she says.
At Wholesum Family Farms, general manager Ricardo Crisantes says he’s interested in growing zucchini squash in a greenhouse.
Lettuce, microgreens, herbs, leafy greens and, in some places, eggplant are some of the greenhouse products Jensen, the consultant, thinks may show up in the not-too-distant future.