Nov 5, 2019
Midwest’s MightyVine doubles tomato greenhouses

Regionally-grown tomatoes are thriving in Chicagoland, where MightyVine is doubling its greenhouse space for growing tomatoes.

The company started in 2015 by Gary Lazarski, Jim Murphy and a group of investors has 15 acres under glass and will add another 15 over the next two years – 7.5 by the end of 2019, and another 7.5 in 2020.

There’s been some uncertainty in the market’s recent history as the U.S. Department of Commerce worked to hammer out a new agreement with Mexican growers governing the importation of fresh tomatoes. Lazarski said the trade controversy was too big for his own company to have much effect. But he’s confident local products’ superior quality will make the difference for consumers it reaches. MightyVine tomatoes have been distributed to most states in the Midwest, although its home is Chicago.

“I don’t see demand tapering,” he said. “The majority of tomatoes are still imported from Mexico. They are typically lower in quality and for many markets they suffer from long transport times. More than most produce, tomatoes do not travel well. The Chicago market and the U.S., in general, can absorb the expansion.”

Building a bigger greenhouse allows a better economy of scale, spreading fixed costs over a larger total business, he said. With financing from Rabo AgriFinance, the company plans to have 30 acres under glass by the end of 2020, even though the “rise of cannabis growing has strained the capacity of quality builders of greenhouses.”

The company, which currently employs 65 employees, will add another 30 or more with the expansion, he said. The company’s head grower is Ruben Vicencio, who Lazarski said had more than 20 years of experience at growing operations in Arizona and Maine and was recruited a few years ago from Maine’s Backyard Farms. Hydroponic growing requires a complex skill set – both the technical knowledge needed to monitor and run the greenhouse, but also the green thumb and soft touch of a grower.

MightyVine head grower Ruben Vicencio
MightyVine head grower Ruben Vicencio has more than 20 years of experience at growing operations in Arizona and Maine. Photos: MightyVine

“It’s a mixture of art and science,” Lazarski said.

MightyVine’s plants are grown in the Dutch hydroponic style, nestling in material spun from volcanic basalt, a spongy, inert material that only allows the right mixture of air and nutrient waters. Water is recycled, using about 10% of what field growing would require, he said.

“Our greenhouse will be a state-of-the-art Dutch Venlo system, with a 30-foot tall roof, a diffused coating on the glass for greater light diffusion, year-round grow lights,” he said. “We use Priva (Dutch monitoring technology) to monitor all the many data points in the greenhouse, from climate to labor.”

MightyVine’s glass houses are a patrolled by employees who scout for disease or pests. It contracts with a third party to bring in beneficial insects as needed. The company hasn’t tried for organic certification, because its fertilizers are not organic.

MightyVine’s tomato varieties include cherry, beefsteak and tomatoes-on-the-vine (TOVs) that are packed in bulk, bags or clamshells depending on the retailer. Robinio cherry tomatoes are also packaged as TOVs. MightyVine’s customers in the greater Chicago area include Jewel-Osco, Costco, Walmart, Whole Foods and a variety of independent grocers and chefs.

“Since harvesting our first tomato in October 2015, we have worked with local restaurants and retailers to build a brand that stands for quality,” Lazarski said. “Locally grown is great, and many of our buyers appreciate that, but at the end of the day, the taste is what matters. Our consistently outstanding quality has resulted in local chefs (Rick Bayless of Frontera, Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde) featuring us on their menus, which in turn has helped us build our brand.”

Bayless said at the 2016 Good Food Festival & Conference he initially had “no interest in hothouse tomatoes,” but was eventually convinced of MightyVine’s great flavor.

“Yes, they are grown under glass,” he said in a YouTube video posted by the nonprofit group FamilyFarmed. “And, yes, they are probably the most delicious tomato that you have ever had, unless it’s one you picked off of a vine you grew yourself, OK?”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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