Local Greenhouse Gears Up for Fruit, Veggie Production

Local Greenhouse Gears Up for Fruit, Veggie Production

By Shannon Horton, Oneota Co-op Member-Owner

The more we know, the more we ask, the more it seems we’re left unsure what to eat.

Think about your last few trips to the Co-op produce department. Did you think about how much energy it takes to get bananas on the shelf? What about the safety of tomatoes? Did you wonder if the commercial but local apple was the best choice? Did you question if it made more sense to buy a butternut squash directly from a farmer at the market?

Oh, and then there are worker’s rights, the environment, the cravings of your family, the money in your bank account and the list goes on. When you really think about it, it’s amazing any of us can walk away with bags full of groceries.

A northeast Iowan’s commitment to eating local, organic produce as much as possible sounds straightforward until you begin to take a closer look. Take the example of strawberries in the winter. Organic Driscoll brand strawberries (large scale production and wide-ranging distribution) travel across the country from California, while Plantpeddler in Cresco now grows commercial strawberries in a greenhouse.

Driscoll uses a considerable amount of petroleum to transport their product, and your dollars are going out of state, yet it is certified organic. Plantpeddler is local, uses energy to heat their greenhouses (their ornamental business has always required year-round heating to 45 degrees so adding the produce production is a logical use of energy for Plantpeddler), and is not certified organic, although is committed to being chemical-free. In terms of price, the Plantpeddler price point will be a bit lower.

On top of it all, don’t forget to factor taste into your decision. So, what will it be?

Plantpeddler, a Cresco-based grower of ornamental flowers, has begun to grow fruits and vegetables in their greenhouses for local, year-round distribution. They are packaged under the label “Stone Creek Farms”. During the summer the greenhouses are full of flowers that sell to other greenhouses and chain grocery stores around the country, but in their off season it will now be full of the produce we’re used to seeing only in the summer and fall in Iowa.

Currently three and a half of their eight total acres are devoted to growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables, including raspberries, strawberries, green beans, cucumbers, summer squash, spinach, arugula, and tomatoes.

According to Mike Gooder, president of Plantpeddler, the goal is to augment, not displace, the local market. As the local growing season tapers down, the Plantpeddler greenhouses will step in to fill out what’s no longer available. That means in October you’ll find produce such as green beans and strawberries for sale at the Co-op. Hopefully, they’ll be taking the place of products from distant places such as California, Arizona, and Mexico. In addition, Mike has stated that every attempt will be made to support local producers, perhaps by sharing delivery trucks, representing smaller farmers’ products, or providing transplants for other growers Johnice Cross, director of G.R.O.W.N. Locally, a farmer cooperative that sells to individuals as well as institutions, is thrilled to have them on board. “The more the merrier” as far as she’s concerned when thinking about the local food scene. In fact, sales for G.R.O.W.N. Locally were up 62 per cent to 65 per cent this season, making it clear to her there’s room for more producers.

Johnice is confident that Plantpeddler is committed to sharing resources with other producers, such as transportation costs and transplants, and loves that they will pick up where G.R.O.W.N. Locally leaves off at the end of Iowa’s short growing season.

The goal at Plantpeddler is to produce fruits and vegetables without chemicals or the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Instead, the best disease resistant plants are selected through trials and research conducted on site. Starting with healthy plants is their first line of defense against pests, along with the use of integrated pest management. Their last resort is the use of chemicals, and that’s the goal whether they’re growing produce or ornamental plants.

Plantpeddler does not plan to seek organic certification for the produce they grow. The ornamental side of their business requires them to spray plants before shipping them out of the country, and in addition any plant coming in from outside the U.S. has also been sprayed. According to the company, the soil used to grow ornamentals will never be used later on to grow fruits and vegetables, however they will save soil after growing produce for reuse with their ornamentals.

The flavor, Mike insists, will be much better than the greenhouse-grown hydroponic varieties we’ve come to know. Their focus on local sales means the plant varieties they select will be based on taste and not production volume. Normally, fruits and vegetables grown for shipping long distances tend to have lower sugar (Brix) content. This makes them heartier for the long journey, but less flavorful. Plantpeddler strives to have high Brix contents in all the produce they grow.

For Plantpeddler to be successful at their new venture they will need to supply grocery stores and co-ops, as well as area restaurants and schools. As of mid-November, Luther College, Quillin’s, McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita, and Oneota Co-op had already placed orders. Mike has stated he is not interested in approaching Wal-Mart to carry their products. The focus of their sales right now is on institutions and grocery stores as close to home as possible and their hope is that they’ll have enough interest and commitment locally to avoid expanding their sales regionally.

Betsy Peirce, produce manager at Oneota Co-op, has recently placed orders for strawberries, rainbow chard, Easter egg radishes, seedless cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, spinach, and arugula.

“I am still getting used to the idea of having a local source at this time of year for fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It seems so strange. I am sure customers are doing a double take when they see local green beans from Cresco, Iowa, in our produce case in November!”

Betsy said Plantpeddler has been easy to work with. “They are very professional and I’ve really appreciated how open they’ve been to our suggestions about packaging and our feedback on the flavor of some of the products,” she said. “What a treat to have local strawberries this time of year!”

In the end, we have to decide what’s for dinner. We have a co-op that works hard and well to educate us about the choices we have to make, and many of us care more about these choices then ever before. To have locally grown produce available to us in the winter has the potential to provide us with more fresh and flavorful produce, the ability to support the local economy, and a better choice for protecting the environment.

Shannon Horton recently relocated to Decorah with her partner, Eric Sovern, and their one-year-old son, Jack Harlan. While she likes to say she moved to Decorah for the nightlife, it was actually for boring reasons like trees and finding a cure for her road-rage. Her passion is reading about teen-angst, and for the past eight years she worked as a middle and high school librarian in St. Paul, Minn.