Greenhouses bring produce closer to home

GRASSTON, Minn. -- Most of the produce hitting the grocery store today is grown out of the country and consumers have no idea what goes into that produce, especially if it was field grown.

GRASSTON, Minn. -- Most of the produce hitting the grocery store today is grown out of the country and consumers have no idea what goes into that produce, especially if it was field grown.

Steve Froehlich, a greenhouse consultant and ag engineer who is also a producer, spoke in Jamestown on Thursday on the challenges and value of growing greenhouse produce. His greenhouses in Grasston, Minn., produce tomatoes and leaf lettuce for the commercial market.

He also shared his concern not only about where food is grown, but also the lack of any kind of regulation on the quality of what's grown.

"About 90 percent of our fruit and vegetables comes from out of the country," he told members of the Jamestown/Stutsman Development Corp. Greenhouse Committee. "The demise of every civilization has been due to the loss of one of three things -- energy, water or food. What is happening with our food production and who's controlling our food if it's grown in another country?"

The JSDC Greenhouse Committee invited Froehlich to share his expertise with the group. The members are also planning to visit commercial greenhouses in the region. For the last six months, the committee has been researching the idea of a commercial greenhouse and processing plant for the Spiritwood Energy Park. Inexpensive steam heat from Spiritwood Station would be available for the facility.


Froehlich suggested the next step is a feasibility study. He said a 10-acre greenhouse would cost an estimated $20 million to build.

"This can be done here, especially with value-added processing adding to the profitability," he said.

At this time, California is the major supplier of field-grown produce in this country. It is then transported throughout the country to markets such as the Twin Cities. There are a couple of problems there, Froehlich said. No. 1 is the cost of transportation and a distribution chain that stretches from coast to coast.

Also, ag land is disappearing in California, its water supply is iffy and its labor force has been migrant workers. As an example of the problem, Froehlich said, growing a certain amount of produce in the field requires 133,400 field acres. The same amount of produce could be grown in a greenhouse using only 4,667 acres. Also, produce that uses 150 gallons of water per day in the field needs only 1 gallon of water in a greenhouse.

Field-grown produce also requires fertilizer and often chemicals to control pests and weeds. Froehlich said whatever else is in the soil is absorbed by the plant.

"Field-grown lettuce is the filthiest product out there if you're looking at hard chemicals," he said as an example.

Unlike fields, greenhouses are an environment that can be controlled. Froehlich knows exactly what goes into his leaf lettuce, he said. There are no chemicals, weeds or bugs. In fact, there's no soil. And it's clean.

"I treat a greenhouse as though it was an operating room," he said. "Food safety is my thing. We know what we're feeding the plant in my (green) house."


Not all commercial greenhouse producers feel the same way, he said. Mexico has dozens of huge greenhouses. And Mexico also has a problem with bugs. He said even some of the big commercial greenhouses in the United States aren't as clean or bug-free as they should be.

Instead of the 40-acre greenhouses of the large international producers, Froehlich prefers the mom-and-pop variety with 10 acres or so. For one thing the product is closer to the end user. The biggest reason field-grown tomatoes are so tasteless, he said, is because they're picked when they're immature and then take weeks to go through the distribution chain. At nearly the last moment before they end up in the grocery store, they're forced to ripen artificially.

If produce came from area greenhouses, he said, it would be fresher and taste better. It would also be safer to eat.

Froehlich spends most of his time educating people on greenhouses and the food supply. He said management is a difficulty, because there is no college degree for hydroponic management. In fact, there's little training available for managing greenhouse production, he said, which is why so many greenhouses go bankrupt.

"My role is networking with as many people as I can. Hydroponic education is my big job now," he said. "There's definitely a learning curve in greenhouse production and there are challenges. But we've just got to grow food differently in this country."

The Jamestown Sun and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.

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