One of Grow Forward’s more successful and well-known companies is MightyVine, the hydroponic tomato grower based in Rochelle, Illinois. I sat down with MightyVine CEO, Gary Lazarski to discuss the environmental benefits of their innovative agricultural techniques and how the restaurant industry has taken to this new kind of tomato.
Gary Lazarski is a lifelong Chicago area resident, having grown up in the suburb of Mount Pleasant. He left the area briefly to attend the University of Michigan for both his undergraduate and law degree. After working in securities trading for several years, what led Gary to hydroponic tomatoes?
“You go out to lunch at places and the tomatoes that you are routinely served in any salad or sandwich just have no flavor.”
Gary explains that industry success is predicated on growing crops in sunny, temperate places and relying on cheap gasoline costs in America to offset the costs of transporting produce across the country to restaurants and grocery stores. Tomatoes in particular don’t ship well though. So this current system sacrifices flavor as well as the troubling environmental impact of the fossil fuels used to transport the produce long distances.
Let’s take a trip (a short) 80 miles west of Chicago to MightyVine’s greenhouse in Rochelle. The massive greenhouse occupies 15 acres (or about 15 football fields for you, Bears fans) with 30 foot ceilings at its peak. This certainly isn’t your run-of-the-mill backyard greenhouse. The facility houses bumblebees to naturally pollinate the tomato plants and features state of the art agricultural technology from Dutch growers at the forefront of the field.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the greenhouse’s surrounding community. Rochelle, a small typical midwestern town, has gone through tremendous changes over the past few decades. The town used to be a rail hub for agricultural shipments with multiple canning and meat packing companies employing residents. It has fallen on hard times over the past few decades as manufacturing jobs have disappeared and small family farms have been bought out or bankrupted by agricultural conglomerates.
MightyVine employs 70 local residents at this time. In the past year, they have been able to expand growing operations from 7.5 acres to 15 acres and hope this growth continues into the future so they can grow more and employ more. Gary Lazarski is proud to invest in this community, “We were able to bring the next generation of agricultural production back to a plot of land that had previously had all the topsoil stripped for development [of a warehouse before the building plans fell through due to the 2008 economic crisis].”
Sustainability is embraced by MightyVine “not just as a buzzword…it’s something we take very seriously both from a business perspective and as being good community stewards.” MightyVine’s hydroponic growth process uses 10% of the water used for a typical field-grown tomato. Water from conventionally grown produce drains into the water table — along with all the fertilizer and pesticides used to optimize the harvest.
MightyVine’s greenhouse reuses rain water and melted snow to apply directly to the tomato roots. So, not only does MightyVine’s growing process use 90% less water than traditionally grown produce, it uses even less than that from community water resources because of its natural water capturing system. That’s incredible!
Conventionally grown produce requires thorough washing at multiple points to make sure chemicals used in the growth and transport process are removed enough for humans to safely eat. These harmful chemicals come from pesticides sprayed constantly on the plants throughout their growth to maximize the end harvest and preservatives used during the long transportation journey across the country where they will eventually be sold. Because of this long gap between when the tomatoes are picked and when they are sold, conventionally grown tomatoes must be picked early, before they reach maturity. The hard green, tasteless tomatoes ripen, not on the vine, as they should be to maximize their flavor and nutritional value, but in the back of a cold, dark truck. Not exactly the epitome of natural, right?
Besides using fewer pesticides because the hydroponic greenhouse leaves the tomato plants less exposed to natural predators, MightyVine tomatoes are fully ripened on the vine and only transported short distances to local grocers and restaurants. Leaving the tomatoes on the vine to ripen and mature maximizes their nutrients that make up the tomato flavor you might remember if you’ve ever eaten a tomato fresh off the vine from your backyard. No, it isn’t your imagination, those tomatoes did taste better!
Foodservice and Restaurant Community:
Chicago is renowned in the culinary world for its groundbreaking and award-winning restaurants. Far from deep dish pizza and Chicago style hot dogs, the city boats 25 2018 Michelin-starred restaurants and Rick Bayless, the most recent James Beard Award winner. A huge culinary trend for chefs right now is local foods. This movement involves creating menus that feature local seasonal ingredients grown as naturally as possible.
Normally, restaurants can replace certain ingredients and alter dishes without much pushback from customers. We all love a nice strawberry salad, but don’t expect to see it on the menu in January. It’s harder to phase out the beloved hamburger for half the year though! The strong consumer demand for tomatoes in a variety of popular and classic dishes puts restaurants in a tough position.
Before MightyVines entered the market, chefs were forced to use inferior quality tomatoes when they were out of season in the midwest. Fortunately, greenhouses defy Chicago seasons so chefs now have the option of fresh, locally grown tomatoes all year round.
Chicago serves as the unofficial capital of the Midwest and is centrally located in the United States. Because of its size and location, the city is a regional hub for produce trading. With so many options and competition, especially with tomatoes, MightyVine has tried to stay out of the commodities market and instead focus on relationships with restaurants and retailers to get their tomatoes on the market.
I won’t lie to you; if you’re looking for the absolute cheapest tomatoes at the grocery store, MightyVine isn’t the brand for you. They cost a little more, taste a lot better, and are grown by a company that is focused on sustainability and quality over profit margins.
Watch the entire interview: