The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Greenhouse Growing

Greenhouse Growing

In the News

June 26, 2011

Greenhouse crop products are produced in some of the world’s most technologically advanced agricultural environments. Usually grown hydroponically – without the use of soil – and inside climate-controlled glass-covered structures, greenhouse (or hot house) crops have the advantage of developing with fewer pest, weed and weather pressures than their conventionally farmed cousins.

But the production of high quality hot house vegetables is an intensive time commitment. It is difficult and risky to leave the greenhouse for short or long periods of time as environmental controls must be performed as needed. While some small growers have been successful in producing crops at a profit for 10 to 15 years, many others have not made a profit and have sold their greenhouses in less than three years. 

Paul Mastronardi is one successful greenhouse producer that been in the business for a long time. His family-run Mastronardi Produce/SUNSET® is the one of the largest greenhouse companies in North America. Mastronardi’s grandfather built the first commercial North American greenhouse in the 1940’s after a trip to Holland, where he learned about the technology. His grandfather’s original goal was to expand the typical growing season for tomatoes beyond the classic three-month period. Today, that goal is realized, as the greenhouse raises tomatoes all 12 months of the year.

“There are many benefits of hot house growing. One is that you can grow the crops year round. You can also use less water and fertilizer. Additionally, you don’t have to waste valuable farmland. Hot house farming uses one-tenth of the land that typical farming uses. And we can eliminate almost all pesticides. We use beneficial bugs like ladybugs to attack the plant-eating bugs that are harmful to the crop,” says Mastronardi.

Mastronardi points out that greenhouse growing is an important technological advancement that can help combat the world’s food shortage problems. Greenhouses can be put up anywhere and can grow nutritious crops all over the world. They are eight to 10 times more efficient in their use of land, water and fertilizer, he says, and there are even different greenhouse technologies for different climates. So it makes sense that interest in this type of growing is increasing.

Paul Bretnlinger, President and Part owner of Crop King – a company that provides complete, commercially viable hydroponic packages that include not only the hard goods needed to grow but also the training and support that help make growers more successful – wholeheartedly agrees. Bretlinger says that they have seen a dramatic increase in interest as the industry gets more press and food safety becomes a more obvious issue. 

“I think the clear reasons for increased interest in hydroponics are food shortages and population growth,” says Bretlinger. “We as a country are finally realizing that we need to be in control of our food supply and not rely on other countries for something as important as food.”   

Bretlinger says that these types of technological advancements are important because the efficiency gained through hot house growing is a huge step toward combating food shortages. Food shortages have become a growing concern across the world, even in the United States, as food prices continue to rise dangerously high. The World Bank has said that the cost of basic food was up 36% from the same time last year in March, and since June last year, 44 million people had fallen below the poverty line as a result of higher food prices worldwide. 

“New advancements in the hydroponic industry could hold the solution to world hunger,” says Bretlinger. “Technology such as BiOWiSH™, which we use in our hydroponic growing, is capable of increasing crop yield weights by up to 30 percent, or adding an extra crop rotation per year for facilities growing to a specific market weight.”

Controlled through highly advanced systems that manipulate temperature, humidity, light and CO2 levels, greenhouse farming also employs the use of drip irrigation. Drip irrigation allows for the delivery of water and nutrients to the plants in the correct amounts and is then recycled. Urban spaces, which until now had not been considered adequate for growing food, can become ideal growing spaces for greenhouse crops. Yet another plus? Hot house growing can offer a source of income from direct sales, and it promotes family or community owned micro-enterprises.

“Greenhouses are completely enclosed, allowing them to have the highest food safety standards, which we all know is a very hot topic these days. You don’t have to worry as much about weather. And retailers are very interested in hot house growing because the supply is very stable. Quality and flavor are better too,” says Mastronardi.

Bretlinger adds, “Hydroponics is a growing system that is easy to learn. The technique is easy to understand, it does not require prior knowledge and concrete results are achieved quickly. And the food that it produces is of a high quality. Fruits and vegetables that are grown this way have a high biological and dietary value. Crops for household consumption are harvested when they are ready to be used. Hence, produce is fresh and has its nutritional and medicinal properties intact.”

Bretlinger hopes that universities and technical schools will expand their horticulture programs to include more hydroponic studies, as the limiting factor in expanding the industry will be talent that is educated and ready to run these operations. Along those same lines, Mastronardi says that the press can help expose consumers to the industry, and get them talking.

“Farmers aren't like big corporations and our margins are way less than any other industry. There are no funds for consumer television or ad campaigns. All monies are usually focused on in store demos or supermarket flyers. We need the media to push this for us and tell the story of hot house growing and its benefits,” he says.