We’re all convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that local, seasonal produce is best. But one Chicago company is redefining the very connotation of seasonal food. MightyVine uses state-of-the-art technology to grow tomatoes in the Chicagoland area 365 days a year – and the company is committed to sustainability.
It's no surprise that before MightyVine, there was a bit of a dearth of good winter tomatoes in Chicago.
“My office back in 2010 was in the Loop; there were a bunch of different lunch places around there, and every sandwich and every salad you bought would have these tomatoes on them,” co-founder and CEO Gary Lazarski tells Fast Company. “They were terrible. You’d see people sitting on a park bench, and without fail, they all do the same thing: Open up the sandwich, look at that sad, orange disk, peel it off like it was a dirty sock, and throw it out.”
It was then that Lazarski began thinking about how he could bring great tomatoes to Chicago 365 days a year, and the answer came in the form of hydroponics.
MightyVine uses glasshouse technology pioneered in Holland. The model creates its own little ecosystem, from using rainwater and snow melt capture to avoid water waste, resulting in using only ten percent of the water of field grown tomatoes, to natural bumblebee pollination and sustainable, all-natural pest management techniques.
“If everything goes as planned, we don’t have to use pesticides,” says MightyVine co-founder and VP Danny Murphy. “For the most part, we use biologicals to control the greenhouse: beneficial bugs – typically ladybugs or wasps – combat the harmful white flies and aphids and things like that.”
It seems that MightyVine has everything it could possibly need to be deemed a sustainable enterprise – except an organic certification.
The Battle Between Hydroponics and the Organic Certification
Whether or not to include sustainable hydroponics in the organic market has been a hotly debated issue of late. While some sustainable hydroponic growers would love to have the trusted certified organic label (and the price premium it affords), proponents of organic say that these farmers should not be permitted to sport the label, no matter how sustainable their operations, because they are not building soil fertility.
“We’ve worked really hard for this word, and it means something, and they want it, and it’s not theirs,” Linley Dixon of the Cornucopia Institute tells Modern Farmer. “Let them build it for 30 years, like the organic farmers did.”
But at least in the case of MightyVine, the lack of a label isn’t too worrying.
“Prior to the new food movement, I think organic was it,” says Murphy. “Everything else kind of seemed to be second fiddle. For us, we don't see that.”
Murphy and Lazarski know that their practices are "as good as organic, if not better." All they need to do is show the world what MightyVine can do.
For Murphy and Lazarski to be able to even consider growing tomatoes in Chicago in the winter, they had to seek out the technology that would give the tomatoes the warmth they needed. This they found in 2010, with Royal Pride Holland, a Dutch company, a pioneer of sustainable glasshouse technology since 1960. MightyVine partnered with the Royal Pride and harvested its first tomatoes in October of 2015 in a 7.5 acre glasshouse in Rochelle, IL.
The land was another hurdle that it took the company a long time to overcome. After looking at innumerable parcels, the founders finally found the ideal location: a former farm that had been sold to be developed for warehouses. After the topsoil was removed, the recession hit, and the site was abandoned. The farming family, who had owned the land for generations, bought it back, but because of the topsoil removal were unable to work it.
MightyVine saw the potential in this land, buying 20 acres (with the option to buy 20 more) and bringing the farmer on as a partner in the company. It is on this land that MightyVine built its first greenhouse; a second opened last year, and today, MightyVine has 15 acres upon which to grow its 200,000 tomato plants.
“It was a great way for [the farmer] to be able to repurpose the land in an agricultural way, which is pretty neat,” says Murphy.
The structure uses glass and radiated heat to create the ideal temperatures for growing two of Royal Pride’s proprietary seeds: MightyVine's “signature” Robinio cherry tomatoes and Roterno on-the-vine slicing tomatoes.
“Our seed is a little bit smaller than most,” says Murphy of the slicing tomatoes, which make up about 60 percent of the company's total output. “Obviously, the larger you get with your tomato, the harder it is to retain a high sugar content or a good flavor profile, so we wanted to choose a little bit smaller of a tomato on the vine for - to be a little bit more of a specialty tomato, if you will.”
The company also grows select varietals based on demand from Chicago chefs, including grape, cocktail, orange, and red beefsteak tomatoes.
“It’s hard to grow a great-tasting beefsteak, just because a tomato's 90 percent water, and the larger you get, the harder it is to retain that good flavor profile,” says Murphy, but MightyVine is up to the challenge.
The goal with all of the company’s tomatoes, at any rate, is to live up to its name: tomatoes are grown on the vine as long as possible, to be picked at the peak of ripeness, rather than being picked early for better shipability like so many tomatoes in the grocery store today.
Small-scale distribution also means that MightyVine drastically reduces its carbon footprint. The tomatoes are distributed only in the Chicagoland area – just as far as Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin.
One would think this would prove limiting, but MightyVine has more than enough demand just in the area. In a given month, the company harvests and delivers around 700,000 pounds of tomatoes to grocery stores; as well as chefs including Frontera’s Rick Bayless; and the founders' from-scratch school food service company, HandCut Foods. And they’re planning on further expansion: more greenhouses, or even more products, from cucumbers and peppers to strawberries.
That said, there’s one part of the industry that MightyVine never expects – or wants – to replace.
“We actually start cleaning out and go to about 50 percent production in the summertime because of locally grown tomatoes,” explains Murphy. “We'll always be second fiddle to that, and we're OK with that.”
The goal is not to replace summer tomatoes but rather to give Chicago a taste of summer – produced locally – when the weather just doesn’t allow it.
“Being able to source local produce in the wintertime is a challenge, to say the least, so we're trying to help bridge that gap and allow chefs in Chicago to have a great opportunity to have a great-tasting tomato 365 days a year," says Murphy. "Those six to eight months a year when it’s a challenge to find those delicious tomatoes, for us, that’s our time to shine."
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All images care of MightyVine