The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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

Hot House Vegetable Farmer

Hot House Vegetable Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

February 21, 2010

Casey Houweling, 51, owns Houweling Hothouse Group, a leading North American greenhouse operator with facilities in Oxnard, California (124 acres) and Delta, British Columbia (50 acres). In addition to hydroponically growing tomatoes and cucumbers, the farm also raises “starter plants” for other greenhouse grown products. Houweling has been a grower/farmer for 33 years.

 How did you get into hot house vegetable farming? 

I joined my father’s agricultural business in 1976 in Delta, British Columbia. I was born into the industry with a family that had a deep passion for growing premium products. Our original family business consisted of a small floral greenhouse as well as a berry farm. Through the years, we expanded our floral greenhouse business from one to three greenhouses, totaling 2.5 hectares. 

In the 1980’s, we identified a tremendous market opportunity to grow hot house vegetables for the expanding Western North American markets. In 1985, our company purchased 92 acres of farmland in Delta, British Columbia and immediately started building our first 2.5-hectare greenhouse to grow Beefsteak tomatoes. Over the next 10 years, we expanded the Delta operation and pioneered large-scale hot house growing of Tomatoes, Sweet Bell Peppers and Long English Cucumbers. In time and due to the market’s need for fresh, premium grown greenhouse produce on a year round basis, we opened a second greenhouse operation in the Oxnard area of Southern California in 1996.

Hot house vegetables are raised in fully enclosed permanent structures that allow for a controlled growing environment for these fresh products. Ideal varieties that are grown in a hot house are those that are highly susceptible to environmental conditions. We grow a broad range of hot house tomatoes that include Beefsteak, Large Tomatoes on the Vine, Amorosa (cocktail-size) Tomatoes on the Vine, Roma Tomatoes on the Vine, Strawberry Tomatoes on the Vine, Grape Tomatoes, Yellow Tomatoes on the Vine, and Orange Tomatoes on the Vine. We also grow seedless Long English Cucumbers and Mini Cucumbers.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

There have been a number of advances in growing hot house vegetables over the past 10 years which have helped optimize operations. Some of these practices include:

  • Building taller greenhouses – new greenhouses are now two meters taller than previous facilities. This has allowed for greater air circulation and increases our ability to control the internal environment.
  • Plants are grown on tables vs. on the ground – in doing so, crop maintenance and harvesting is more efficient. Furthermore, all irrigation water, which is delivered to the plants via drip tubes, is collected in troughs, recycled/treated and re-used to water the plants. This greatly reduces water draw and run-off of water into the environment.
  • Changing growing media – we now grow our plants hydroponically in crushed coconut husk fiber. This media provides optimal levels of water, nutrient and CO2 to reach the plant’s roots. It is also totally recyclable.

How will hot house vegetable farming evolve in the next five years?

Two very critical elements are at the forefront of what the industry and consumers are seeking in food production, which is at the forefront of shaping the future of growing in a hot house environment.  

The first element is sustainability and doing more with less. We feel that implementing sustainability practices within our organization is the right thing to do to improve our financial results, protect the environment, and create a positive work environment for our employees. We define hitting these three factors of sustainability as optimizing our triple bottom line. We are at the forefront in the agriculture industry in what we have done in the past number of years, and this all came to a head last year when we expanded our Oxnard facility by adding 40 new acres of greenhouse production. This facility is the first energy neutral hot house-growing environment in the world. It utilizes state of the art technologies such as a closed structure which minimizes pest pressures, solar energy and thermal collectors to provide sustainable/green energy and heat, and a water recycling and recirculation system which captures rain water and recaptures/filters/re-circulates all water that is not used by the plants thereby eliminating runoff and reducing water draw by 66%. This has allowed us to not only be good environmental stewards but also be competitive with other growing regions in the world.

The second critical element that we believe will evolve further in the next five years is with food safety. As consumers of fine food, we want to have confidence in knowing that the source of our food production not only adheres to but exceeds industry standards. We certainly believe that the benefit afforded to us by growing our products in a closed environment allows us to optimize food safety elements and produce fresh hot house grown vegetables that consumers can have confidence in. We are also close to our major markets and consumers, and they can identify easily with us in knowing that our products are grown in their home regions.
What is your greatest challenge as a hot house vegetable farmer?

The greatest challenge to the hot house vegetable grower is to stay at the forefront of technological advances within the industry. This, however, is not something that we define as a challenge at Houweling’s but rather treat as something that we are incredibly passionate about in our day-to-day operations. We are constantly striving for ways in which we can optimize our growing operations to produce impeccably fresh, consistent, great tasting products. Our organization has a history of developing and implementing practices that do this, and it is something that I believe in strongly to help us remain at the forefront in growing premium produce.  

Another area that we focus on as greenhouse growers is in raising awareness for our high standards of growing, grading and packing our products. We have aligned ourselves with other growers in the industry that share these values. This group is called the Certified Greenhouse Growers Association and is focused on common growing, harvesting and quality practices that have allowed us to produce products under a standard of excellence which is identifiable to the consumer.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

There are a number of ways in which a farmer and a retailer interact on a forward-looking basis to ensure that our efforts are integrated with their future plans. On an ongoing basis, we bring retailers to our facility and review new product and packaging concepts with them as potential new offerings. These retailers play a critical role in communicating to us feedback on our current products. They also share ideas with us on new products that they may wish to offer in the future. It is a unique and interactive relationship that helps bring new concepts to stores and ultimately to consumers.

Collectively, we need to communicate more effectively with the consumer and appreciate what they want in fresh, healthy and safe produce items.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

Our organization has gone to great lengths to develop and implement sustainable practices across the board. Our commitment to conservation includes:

  • Renewable Energy – We are dedicated to reducing our use of non-renewable sources of energy. In 2009 we installed a 5-acre solar photovoltaric hybrid system that will generate 1 megawatt of electricity. Solar electricity generation is expected to provide over 50% of the facility's energy needs, avoiding CO2 emissions of over 1.5 million pounds annually. This is equivalent to removing over 300 cars from the roads or the absorption of CO2 from over 400 acres of trees. 
  • Reduced Fossil Fuel Usage – At certain times, heating greenhouses is essential for maintaining the optimal growing conditions. In the past, burning natural gas to generate heat for facilities was a common practice. We have converted to cleaner-burning renewable sources of fuel. Our Canadian facility uses renewable biomass that is carbon neutral. In 2009 we installed a solar thermal system at our Oxnard facility, which collects and stores heat to be used when it is needed. This system will reduce our CO2 emissions by 15.4 million pounds annually. 
  • Water Conservation – We effectively conserve water and reduce draw off of the water table by collecting and recycling rainwater in on site retention ponds. We also utilize drip irrigation, which significantly conserves water usage and run off by only feeding our plants with the water they need to thrive. Our newly expanded greenhouse facility in Oxnard has enhanced our irrigation program further. Closing the greenhouse has significantly reduced evaporation of irrigation water. Excess irrigation water runoff is collected and transported to the water treatment system gutters. Treatment and recycling of condensation, rain, runoff water, and fertilizing nutrients are accomplished through advanced water treatment and ozonation technology. This has resulted in a 66% decrease in water use and a 50% decrease in nutrients needed.  
  • Land Stewardship – Our hydroponic growing practices minimize our impact on the land. Our greenhouse makes efficient use of land space. Our greenhouses produce up to 25 times more fruit per acre than in conventional field production. This means that you would need to have a 3,000-acre farm to produce the same amount of fruit that comes from our greenhouse. Since we grow in media above the ground, the vitality of soil is maintained. Further, our new water conservation system at our Oxnard facility eliminates run off back into the environment. Our grower team constantly seeks new ways to increase plant yields, which allows us maximize the amount of land used for growing.
  • Packaging – Our goal is to source and use environmentally beneficial packaging options that utilize post-consumer recycled materials and minimize our impact on the environment. Our corrugated shipping cartons contain post-consumer feedstock, and we only use PET plastic clamshells.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

Our products are available locally in California through most retail and foodservice outlets, 12 months a year. You can find Houweling’s Hot House brand tomatoes and cucumbers at Costco, Vons, Ralphs, Stater Brothers, Bristol Farms and Whole Foods, as well as many other outlets throughout the area.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person? 

Hearing from consumers about our products is truly one of the most rewarding experiences that we have as growers. Our consumers love that there is a local California source of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers available on a year round basis.  Our products proudly feature the CA Grown license plate that many California growers are using to identify themselves on packaging. Furthermore, our consumers love the unique mix of tomatoes and cucumbers that we have. Our products come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes, and pack a bold taste that they love. Many consumers who have visited our company’s website and learned more about our sustainability practices have reached out to us and acknowledged how they feel good about consuming products that they know are being raised in a socially responsible manner.