Demand for year-round Illinois tomoatoes continues to grow
MightyVine CEO Gary Lazarski showcases some of the company’s tomatoes ready for picking. The company opened two greenhouses five years ago, opened another late last year and could open another within the next year. (Photo by Mike Orso).
Each MightyVine greenhouse near Rochelle covers 7.5 acres. Danny Murphy, in charge of business development for the company, says hydroponic tomatoes use 10% of the amount of water used by field-grown tomatoes, yet grow 10 times more fruit. (Photo by Mike Orso).
Jason Anderson, Rochelle economic development director, leads the tomato sampling during a recent event held at MightyVine greenhouses. Participants included (left to right) Peter Cimino, staffer with U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger; Gary Lazarski, MightyVine CEO; John Bearrows, Rochelle mayor; Anderson; State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon; Andy Shaw, Lee-Ogle Enterprise Zone administrator; and Maggie Pappas, staffer with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
A MightyVine worker prunes hydroponic tomato plants in one of its three greenhouses. The company supplies Chicagoland grocery retailers and hundreds of restaurants. (Photo by Mike Orso).
He might live in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, but Danny Murphy will make several 80-mile trips each week to his company’s greenhouses near Rochelle.
Murphy serves as director of business development for MightyVine, the Chicago-based company that has developed a thriving market for fresh, Illinois-grown tomatoes. It recently opened its third hydroponic greenhouse not far off of I-88 near the Lee and Ogle County line.
“Our plants grow about a foot a week, they get to about 40-45 feet in length, and our roofline is only 27 feet,” said Murphy, following a recent community event that officially marked the company’s latest expansion. “So, everything is trussed on crop wires and twine. Every week we have to lower the plants and move them over, so the ripe tomatoes are at the same point for picking purposes.”
The new greenhouse joined two others that house thousands of plants and will supply up to 10-million pounds of Illinois-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes annually. Most ship from Rochelle to Chicagoland food-retailers such as Costco, Jewel-Osco and Whole Foods.
“The rise of the hydroponic industry I think is an opportunity for Illinois to really continue to assert itself in agriculture,” said MightyVine CEO Gary Lazarski. “At least since World War II, the food system evolved to be, grow it in California,
Mexico or Florida and then truck it across the country because fuel is cheap. We are blessed in the Midwest with great water resources, and if we can figure out ways to sustainably light and heat our crops in hydroponic greenhouses, we can do a lot of things to shorten the supply chain.”
Each greenhouse covers 7.5 acres and serves as a living ecosystem that includes bumble beehives for pollination, the use of beneficial insects to control harmful ones, and a water basin that captures snowmelt and rainfall. The water is cleaned, and nutrients added to feed the tomato plants using drip irrigation and then recycled. It takes four months for the plants to produce and they will do so for up to 10 months.
“When you clean out a greenhouse, you’re down for about two months,” said Murphy, who also handles MightyVine sales. “That’s why you have numerous, different greenhouses so you can kind of stage the growth.”
Murphy’s family owned and operated an ethanol plant and sought a way to capture and reutilize the facility’s waste, heat and carbon dioxide. He said the Dutch have a reputation for building large scale greenhouses near industrial plants, and he spent a year in the Netherlands with the company’s Dutch partners studying hydroponics.
“I learned everything about the growing process, how the tomatoes go from seed to harvest, all the labor involved with it because it’s quite extensive,” said Murphy. “I kind of learned all of that in the Dutch marketplace, which is a little different than our marketplace, but it gave me an understanding for the business.”
MightyVine now employs over 100 people to help with the planting, pruning, picking and packing. At the event, Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows and other officials noted more than $40-million worth of transportation and other infrastructure improvements that have taken place over the last 24 months, with an additional $12 million planned in the next two years, to help attract companies like MightyVine and others. The efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
“I think we’re living proof that when you work with a community like Rochelle, and you have an idea that’s sustainable, businesses can thrive in Illinois, said Lazarski.
Murphy believes the ability to grow locally ensures superior quality and taste and has contributed to the increase in demand for the Illinois tomatoes.
“When people come through my greenhouse and they say this is the closest thing to my mom or dad or grandma’s tomatoes when I was a kid, that’s exactly the most beautiful compliment I could ever ask for,” he said.
If demand continues to grow, the company plans another tomato greenhouse expansion over the next year. Longer term, Murphy would like to see MightyVine greenhouses growing hydroponic “mighty peppers, mighty cucumbers and mighty strawberries.”