Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

How Texas is Growing Tomatoes in the Middle of the Desert

Next time you buy a Texas tomato, check where it was grown. The answer might surprise you. That’s because ninety percent of the state’s tomatoes come from a few greenhouses in the arid deserts of Far West Texas. (You can see a detailed breakdown of how the process works in the slideshow above.)

The latest addition to that group is a massive glass facility in Monahans, outside of Odessa. It officially opened for business this week.

“Well, when you look at this, this is like a giant, 15-acre, indoor garden,” says Doug Kling, Senior Vice President for Village Farms, which owns and operates the greenhouse. “Pollinated [by] bees, and grown naturally. Where the sunlight comes in and you can smell the calyx. It’s kind of exciting. There’s a peacefulness to it.” 

So how exactly do you grow tomatoes in the desert?

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues/StateImpact Texas

Doug Kling says "there's a peacefulness" to the greenhouse.

“The way this works is, we don’t grow in the soil. We grow in a steril environment, like coco peat,” says Kling. “There’s no hard minerals in that, like arsenic. So what we do is, we control the environment by controlling the airflow in the greenhouse, closing the vents off, misting from the top to makes sure it’s humid enough so the plants don’t dry out.”

The plants are “infused” in water in the coco peat, and any runoff is captured in a gutter underneath. “We recycle that up to five times,” Kling says, “which allows us to use 87 percent less water than in the field.” That water is then sent to the city golf course. “And because of the ultimate climate conditions,” Kling adds, “we get thirty times the yield of a [traditional] field per acre.”

Bees are allowed in to pollinate, but other bugs are kept out, eliminating the need for pesticides.

Photo by Filipa Rodrigues/StateImpact Texas

Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples inspects the tomatoes.

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples was on hand for the ribbon-cutting. He invited a group of reporters, including StateImpact Texas, to fly out with him.

“We have a facility here that uses one-fifth of the water of traditionally field grown crops and has forty times the yield,” Staples says. “It’s a phenomenal system that’s been put together and really an example of the future.”

Village Farms says the project will bring 400 full-time jobs to the area. The company plans to expand the facility to over 120 acres of greenhouse farming in the coming years.

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Comments

  • Summer

    But these greenhouse-grown tomatoes do not taste as good as those grown outside in the iron-rich soil around Jacksonville, Texas.  If you don’t believe me, just try tomatoes from each area side by side, then you will believe. 

  • Grhardin

    Summer,
    It would seem to me that a system like this could pretty easily be adapted to add those minerals to the peet that would enhance the flavor.  I too much prefer the rich taste of “real” tomatoes.  But reality is that places like Texas are not getting the rain like they used to so systems like this may be the only way tomatoes can be cultivated.  I would not be surprised to see similar systems adapted for other vine produce

  • betsyjmiller

    Wonderful.  But how do they TASTE?

    • YellerKitty

       The reason most grocery store tomatoes have little flavor is because they have to be a cultivar that can withstand being picked early and transported while still underripe without bruising. The breeding programs that produced those hardy tomatoes did not select for flavor but for durability. It’s not the fact of being raised in a greenhouse that makes a tomato taste ‘blah’, but the cultivar that’s selected. While it is true that ‘terroir’ can, to picky palates, contribute a certain je ne sais quoi, for most of us a tomato with a good, flavorful heritage, grown under ideal conditions, will be a revelation. The fact that these can be grown in an environment that would otherwise be unproductive and that this method will use a fraction of the water required by standard agriculture means that this can be a promising solution to the problems that we are going to be encountering very, very soon.

      • JewelD

        The commercially grown heritage varieties coming in from Mexico seem to be shipping alright. I would suggest we see more of those coming from US commercial growers as well.

  • Tragiccoffee

    These are real tomatoes, maybe a cultivar that doesn’t have the same taste, but real tomatoes. Coco coir, not peat as the article claims, is an inert substrate that contains none of the heavy metals or plant diseases that soil does. Using less water and fertilizer than any soil grow could ever dream of. Try cloning your supposed superior tomatoes into coco and grab a small bottle of hydro solution (Canna, Botanicare, ect.) and you will realize tomatoes will grow faster, bigger, with more flavanoids and terpines than your soil. Many state universities will test your sample for a nominal fee. Stop bashing hydroponics everyone, if only you realized all the toxins your food is absorbing from soil and how much water is being wasted.

  • Bombeck

    More importantly, how do you grow a good tomato in a rain forest?

  • JonathanSnow12

    i grow tomatoes with no problem in Bend, OR. It’s not as bad as arid west text, but it’s a high desert. Mine are grown outside with compost and water.

  • Winter

    I was inspired by a 6th grader’s science project to learn more about hydroponics and tried it at home with a bean plant.  I couldn’t believe how vigorous my bean plant was! I  commend these folks in Texas for producing a healthy product without the use of pesticides while conserving water as well. This is how we will feed the world in the future.

    • JewelD

      I dunno. Buying the additives to make it work seem costly to me. I’m a bigger fan of keyhole gardening and related technologies – 3x the output for 10% of the water.

  • Alnetloc

    Interesting article – how energy intensive is this.  The significant reduction in water usage and increased production imply positive energetics.  However, I’d be interested in seeing the balance sheet on the energy return vs. energy investment.  Unrelated:  Somebody didn’t do their job editing this article – full of typos and other mistakes…

  • stevepipkin

    I have been in the retail produce business for 29 years and have seen the transformation of the tomato industry from tasteless tomatoes to tasty new hybrids such as ‘Olmeca’, ‘Black Velvet’, and ‘Bruno Russo’.

    Example: The cherry tomato marketed under the name “SunBursts” is the result breeding programs to produce fruit that tastes good. “SunBursts” yellow tomatoes are owned by Desert Glory LTD from San Antonio, Texas. We sell a lot at our store because THEY TASTE GOOD and customers demand them.

    Most of the newer varieties are small. Many of them are 5/8″ to 3″ in diameter. The general public usually can’t buy these tomato seeds. The tomato’s genetic material is owned by large corporations. They are in business to make money.

    One new variety (hybridized in 1992) is the ‘Sun Gold’. It has been released to the general public and likely already enjoyed by many readers.

    The greenhouse in Texas is like others in the American west and southern Europe. Growers can plant a new variety with improved taste qualities and control the environment so they end up with a marketable crop and a greater yield. We do business with some good ol’ boys in Grainger Co. Tennessee. They plant their early summer tomatoes in the ground in a greenhouse. The flavor is great and they get twice the yield per plant because they can control the environment.

    Sure a tomato picked out of the garden in mid August is good. What plant scientists and technologically savvy growers have done is to provide good tasting tomatoes beyond the two month window of summer tomatoes.

    Steve Pipkin
    BS Botany
    BS Horticulture
    29 years retail produce experience

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=649813048 Nicoline Smits

    What I’d like to know is, how do they explain to the other insects to stay out when they let bees in?

    • YellerKitty

       Nicoline, ALL insects are excluded except those that are intentionally introduced into the closed environment. Bees are brought in, not ‘let’ in.

  • Billywol

    So, where is the water coming from?

    • JewelD

      Probably well water of some kind.

    • Elizabeth Rodriguez

      Texas water rights allow the owner to seize the ground water. It’s not ethical or sustainable. I’m a native Texan and have seen these farms. It’s not right and harms the local farms and ranches.

  • Guest

    Saving water, cutting out pollutants…how are the tomatoes transported, where do they go after they are grown?  How much gas does it take to get these tomatoes to market?

  • http://twitter.com/OrthoticsLondon Optimotion Camden

    This will have a huge impact on, and revitalise economies in countries that have lots of sun but not much rain. optimotion

  • Rric19

    The tomatoes are shipped by truck 12 months out of the year. They are picked, packed and shipped withing 24 hours. The Village Farms distribution center in Ft Worth handles over 2 million cases of produce a year.   They provide produce year round.

  • Lindasearcy13

     I have 27 acs. in Montague County and would love to set up something like this but growing Tx and/or S West native plants for landscaping. I cringe when I see people watering their sidewalks. I don’t have the funds or know how to do this and would appreciate any information on the subject.

    • Trimmer

      Not having the funds makes info in the subject useless…if you want to build out your 27 acres, find a couple million dollars first (try a pro-football player, they need something to do with their millions, what better than an ag commodity so they can reap the tax benefits).  There are a ton of greenhouse companies in Texas.  Key Point: Build as high tech as possible.  Greenhouse technology has advanced at the rate of computers and will continue to do so for a long time.  What you build today will be outdated in a few years. Good Luck!

      • Carlos Lopez

        Count on $1,000,000 per acre.

        • JewelD

          Not if it’s permaculture.

  • Czar

    I think Ecopeat are the only company that offers a blend of cocopeat, husk chips & cut cir fibres to grow tomatoes with great flavour. Their theory is that pure cocopeat can be too wet and this has an impact on the flavour.

  • YellerKitty

    FYI, Ag commissioner Todd Staples’ overall PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter rating is 26.857  …  I suppose everyone’s right sometime …

  • Nilo_estrella

    Please send me more info on this.Thanks

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