Gigantic year-round tomato farm closer to reality

Posted 10/4/23

Like a bleached skeleton, the white steel stanchions of a gigantic greenhouse stretch across the Schartner Farm property on Route 2. It’s been like that going on three years.

Nothing …

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Gigantic year-round tomato farm closer to reality


Like a bleached skeleton, the white steel stanchions of a gigantic greenhouse stretch across the Schartner Farm property on Route 2. It’s been like that going on three years.

Nothing appears to have changed, yet the dream of a 25-acre greenhouse producing 42,000 pounds of ripe and ready to eat sweet tomatoes daily is alive.

James Haught, CEO of Rhode Island Grows, recently told Warwick Rotarians that seemingly little has changed since he last addressed the service club more than a year ago. But, that’s not the case, and while he forecast the operation could be producing tomatoes by next year, as he did more than a year ago, this time it looks possible.

This time Haught projects work on completing the greenhouse could start by this Thanksgiving.

“We are spending a lot of money on engineering right now,” he said. He projected the greenhouse will be ready for planting by next July with the first harvest of tomatoes by this time next September.

“We have been working with them (the Town of Exeter) pretty closely since last December,” Haught said. He went a step further, adding, “We have a very good relationship with them.”

That wasn’t the case when RI Grows and the Schartners moved ahead with construction of the greenhouse without approval from the Exeter building official on the assumption that state law defining agricultural buildings allowed them to do so. The town building official saw it otherwise. He defined the massive greenhouse as an industrial operation that would require a change in zoning and town approvals. The dispute headed to court.

The project looked dead on the vine, but it wasn’t and the vision of RI Grows becoming a major food producer and employer has only grown. The Exeter greenhouse would be the first of 14 planned for region.

Haught didn’t pinpoint sites for the year round operations capable of hydroponically growing tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers for distribution by major supermarkets in the northeast as well as farther south including New York and New Jersey. He is looking for sites in Washington County in close proximity to the natural gas pipeline for several reasons. Natural gas will power the engines used to keep greenhouse water warm year round and power the lights that will “trick” the plants into believing every day is a July day, the prime time for producing. Additionally, as long as the user is relatively close (within a mile), Rhode Island Energy will pick up the connection tab. Finally, as a means of recycling, Haught said that carbon captured from the carbon dioxide produced by burning natural gas would be used to supplement the cocktail of nutrients fed the tomato plants.

Water, which is critical to the operation, is to be captured by V-shaped gutters running the length of the pyramid-shaped greenhouse roof. It would be stored and treated before being fed to the plants. Water not used by the plants would be recycled after being retreated.

High pressure sodium lights would run the length of the greenhouse, making every day a July day. Screens that Naught described as 99.8 percent effective would block out the light at night.

Also in response to neighbors’ questions, Naught said there would be only be one delivery truck leaving the facility six days a week. Carrying upwards of 42,000 pounds of tomatoes, the truck would be bound for a Sunset Brands distribution center in New Jersey. RI Grows has a long term agreement to supply Sunset Brands and Haught expects the major food supplier would open distribution centers closer to New England with development of the greenhouses. The Sunset Brands agreement plays a key role in the overall financing of the project that Haught said Monday is in the process of being finalized.

At this time, Haught said, the project is designed to operate on the sale of grade A tomatoes. Grade B and C tomatoes could get sold to local farmers’ markets or donated to non profits such as the RI Food Banks, as part of the 10 percent of profits RI Grows is committed to its funders to make in donations to address global food insecurity. Haught advocates keeping those donations local as much as possible using the input of the Narragansett Indians who are a partner in the venture.

And just how would a single greenhouse, which Haught estimates will take $80 million to have up and running, grow and harvest a projected 19 million pounds of tomatoes annually?

The company will start with 18 inch tomato plants. During a projected life of eight months the vines could grow to a length of 18 feet. As the fruit is harvested from the top of the plant, the vine is progressively wrapped around the stalk. Tending the rows of plants would be 80 workers who because the greenhouse is operating year round would have full time jobs with benefits ranging in pay from $30,000 to $150,000 for the head grower.

Haught pointed out that this would offer full time employment opportunities to seasonal workers who otherwise may end up on unemployment roles. He expected hours of operation to be from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Given the 25-acre layout of the greenhouse, he said there would be break areas where workers could rest.

Having completed its production life, that sector of the greenhouse would undergo a two-month cleaning before introduction of another crop of tomatoes. A benefit to locally grown tomatoes, Haught explained, is the time between harvesting and when they arrived on supermarket shelves. As they ripen, tomatoes become sweeter. However, since many of the tomatoes sold locally year round are grown in Mexico they are harvested before they are fully ripened and sweet. They are ten “gassed” which enhances their appearance to a red tomato but not the flavor.

Predictably, a venture of this magnitude, especially with visions of another 13 greenhouses is going to take a lot of green. Haught told Rotarians that he had hoped to have that all in place shortly. However, like so much of this project that could enhance the state’s economy, it’s been a process of baby steps.

farm, tomatoes, farming


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