Sep 18, 2012
California tomato grower goes green

When Casey Houweling was thinking about the future of his tomato operation in Camarillo, Calif., he thought mostly of his daughters and the legacy his company would leave for them, he said. That made his decision to make the company energy independent and “green” very easy.

And so began a 10-year process of looking at every aspect of Houweling’s Tomatoes to see what could be done differently, he said. Speaking during an online press conference, he unveiled the latest advancement for the 125-acre greenhouse operation: a pair of 24-cylinder, natural gas-powered generators from General Electric (GE), which produce 8.8 megawatts of electrical power. That is more than the farm needs most of the time, so the excess energy is fed back into the local grid, Houweling said.

The heat from the engines is used as well. It is captured in thermal storage tanks and goes to heat the greenhouses. GE estimates more than 10.6 megawatts of thermal power is captured from the generators, Houweling said.

“We also extract the heat from the tomatoes when they go into cold storage,” Houweling said. “We also extract the heat from the cooling water and use that, too.”

The goal for the new system was to waste nothing, he said. The water that escapes from the exhaust system is captured and condensed to irrigate tomato plants. It will provide up to 9,500 gallons of water per day to the greenhouses, and won’t use any additional water from an already taxed California water table.

Carbon dioxide from the engine’s exhaust is captured and returned to the greenhouses for use as fertilizer.

“It’s one thing to have solar and it’s one thing to have renewables,” Houweling said. “But, the wasting of energy and resources is terrible and something we just couldn’t do anymore.”

The new system came at a cost: $17 million. But Houweling said it is well worth it.

“We grow tomatoes, and we make money so we can grow tomatoes,” he said. “We do it with as little environmental impact as possible. We put a significant amount of capital at risk for this project, but it will be worth it.”

Houweling said that a project like this takes a lot of help. One of the partners was GE.

“It is unheard of to have a cogeneration facility that is almost 100 percent efficient,” said Scott Nolen, product line leader of gas engines for GE. “This is the most efficient hydrocarbon generation facility in America.”

Houweling grows yellow and orange and beefsteak tomatoes, Romas, cocktail tomatoes, strawberry tomatoes and grape tomatoes, all on the vine. They also grow cucumbers. All produce is vine ripened and hand picked, to be sold mostly in California – though some is shipped East. They try to stay as local as possible to cut down on trucking, Houweling said.

Cornelius Houweling founded the family business in 1956 in British Columbia, Canada, with a small greenhouse and berry farm. Current owner Casey joined the family business in 1976, and moved to the present location in 1996 to take advantage of the climate and light available in southern California.

For more information on Houweling’s Tomatoes, visit www.houwelings.com.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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