This Massive Local Greenhouse Is Growing Some Of The Best Tomatoes Around... Even In Winter
By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 11, 2017 3:39PM
Photo courtesy of MightyVine.
Walking into MightyVine's Rochelle, Illinois headquarters is like entering a scene from a utopian science fiction novel. Perfectly formed tomatoes, growing in drip-fed row after drip-fed row, stretch as far as the eye can see, while employees quietly tend to the produce and sun streams in through the rooftops. MightyVine has made a huge investment in this local tomato production facility, and it's paying off, as you've probably found their tomatoes on the shelves at your local market. Thanks to their special techniques and fiercely local provenance, MightyVine's bright red tomatoes are definitely the most delicious tomatoes you can find in a grocery store.
Let's be honest: the average grocery store tomatoes...just aren't very good. They're picked before they are ripe from fields in Mexico or California, and they're bred for transport and shelf-stability, not flavor. That's why they usually taste like foam bags of vaguely tomato-inspired water, and they are nothing like what you can grow in your own backyard. That's what MightyVine wanted to change.
"They have that backyard taste and feel that your own tomatoes have," explains Danny Murphy, VP of MightyVine. "You don’t have to just wait for August and September, you can have it year round."
Photo by Anthony Todd.
This time of the year, as heirloom tomatoes flood local markets, MightyVine is actually (surprisingly) moving a little slower.
"We’re not trying to replace anything as far as local growers are concerned. We’ll always be second fiddle to that," says Murphy. But come November or December, when the farmers markets are looking pretty empty, those packages of bright red, perfectly ripe MightyVines will be a welcome taste of summer. They even smell like garden tomatoes, in a way that no other grocery store brand does.
MightyVine is just one part of a family of companies that is doing a lot to change the local food landscape; the same group controls Local Foods, the grocery store and distributor (and home of the Butcher & Larder) and Handcut Foods, which focuses on providing local and sustainable food to schools and institutions.
Photo via Facebook.
They clearly aren't interested in doing anything small. MightyVine has 15 acres under glass, a massive facility that required an investment of more than $20 million. They're planning their next expansion already, thanks to robust sales - they have more orders than they can supply most of the year. "Every week, we're telling people no," says Zac Mann, my tour guide at MightyVine.
Touring around the greenhouse is unlike visiting any other farm I've ever been to—it's quieter, for one thing, there's not dirt (the tomatoes are grown hydroponically) and all of the produce is identical. They use special tomato varietals bred for greenhouses, so each tomato is pretty much exactly the same. This allows them to satisfy large grocers, who insist on uniformity of product. But they also satisfy the local food geek, since all of their products are grown within two hours of Chicago and come in at the peak of freshness. Ironically, this actually caused a problem for MightyVine when they first launched.
"Coming in to the marketplace, being something totally different, it was a process," laughs Murphy. "I had to come in and talk to produce buyers that have been in the business for 30 years, and they’re telling me my tomatoes are going to go bad faster because they’re too red. That was the number one complaint I got - they’re too red." Buyers and customers assumed that the tomatoes would spoil within minutes, but actually, because they are grown and picked so close to the store, they have a two-week shelf life.
Photo courtesy of MightyVine.
MightyVine tomatoes are also pretty small, compared to the water-inflated monsters you normally see. "We chose to grow a smaller varietal that had a better taste - when it gets larger, there’s just more water," says Murphy. "We didn’t want to be the commodity tomato at the commodity price."
The first harvest from the MightyVine greenhouse was in October of 2015, and since then, they've been ramping up production; they now ship approximately 100,000 pounds of tomatoes every week. The plants become giant; as leaves die and tomatoes are picked, growers can wind the stems around the hydroponic base and keep the plants producing. A plant usually produces for about 16 months. The greenhouse is planted in stages, so when one group of plants is done, a crew comes in to clean out all the plants at once and then replant with new babies.
The plant uses integrated pest management to keep everything clean and safe, combined with a lot of old-fashioned vigilance. Carts on rails roll down each 300-foot row of tomatoes, so that the growers can inspect everything and keep careful records in case a blight or bug is found and needs to be removed. Those same rails are also used for picking, and for heating in the winter. They can be pumped full of warm water to keep tomatoes (which need heat to ripen) happy. Beehives are everywhere inside the greenhouses, and while it means the occasional sting, it's worth it to keep the plants happy.
Photo via Facebook.
Technological touches abound; employees use electronic tags to check in to each row of tomatoes, so picking can be monitored and problems can be tracked by the plant's central computer system. When I visited, the transparent ceilings were slightly opaque; Mann explained that during the summer, the greenhouse actually gets too hot, so they cover some of the glass. I was curious about how dangerous it must be for contractors to apply this opaque film; Mann laughed and told me that it was all done by helicopters that spray a paint onto the glass at the beginning of summer and wash it off when the weather gets cooler.
Despite their massive size, MightyVine doesn't want to supplant local growers (or even your garden); they think they can offer something that no one else can - perfect winter tomatoes.
"We’re not trying to replace anything as far as local growers are concerned. We’ll always be second fiddle to that. We’re not using soil, you’re not getting the total nutrients and taste that comes from the ground," explains Murphy. "Ultimately, I want someone to come into my greenhouse and say “These are great tomatoes, second best to the ones my grandma grew.” I want them to be almost that, to remind them of that."
You can find MightVine tomatoes at your local Whole Foods or Jewel, and you'll find them on many menus around Chicago. Try one out; you might be surprised what a real tomato tastes like.