The focus of this project was to evaluate the feasibility of year-around greenhouse production of high-value crops (namely cherry tomatoes) to improve product mix during the winter months. Sales at the local farmers’ market typically decline because consumers turn to their local grocer for vegetables that are normally shipped in during the winter months, including tomatoes. The project concluded that it is feasible to extend the cherry tomato growing season, and that the production would result in a return on investment of the heated greenhouse in approximately a two year period (optimally), most likely in five years, and up to seven years.
As a producer, it was exciting to grow cherry tomatoes in the dead of winter and see the customers’ delight. But it was just as rewarding to know that we have increased production at a time when we need the cash-flow the most, to have done so cost-effectively, and that we have a product at a time when demand and prices are high. The system should last, with minimal maintenance, 15 years. So if you pay it off in two years, it is expected that you would continue to make a profit for another 13 years after it is paid for, and with proper maintenance, perhaps well beyond that.
In order to invest in the product development, marketing and infrastructure necessary to expand the product mix, there has to be sufficient evidence of demand. This is important for an expectation for any farmer to assume that sort of risk of investment. In order for the expansion to be profitable, it will require that the farm be able to produce and harvest tomatoes throughout most of the entire year, in the most cost effective, economical method possible. The questions remained, how many tomatoes can we grow indoors, fall to spring, how long will it take to net a return on investment for infrastructure improvements and supporting systems, is there sufficient demand/price to justify the investment, and will we see a profit beyond the life of the greenhouse itself? These are the answers we searched for with our research, in the climate of our Northern Mexico region of Embudo, at approximately a 5,500 feet. elevation. In addition to the cost of infrastructure, we knew we would always have to supplement the heat and identify the cost of harvest before we could calculate the net profit, and thus identify how many years we needed to recoup the cost.
This project provided the opportunity to see how long it will take to make the money back, by assessing the revenue potential against the cost of installing the necessary infrastructure for extended production of high value crops, such as cherry tomatoes; based upon market prices obtained during the winter months from both the wholesale and retail (farmers’) markets.
1) Assess the demand and pricing for cherry tomatoes, sold in pints and half pints at local cooperative markets in Los Alamos, Taos and Dixon, which usually pay reasonable wholesale prices, but demand is low. And, in the process, assess the demand and pricing of sales at the Los Alamos Farmers’ market.
2) Grow a test bed of cherry tomatoes during the fall of 2011 to measure the yield in a thermal-heated and cooled greenhouse, to calculate the return on investment based upon the cost of infrastructure and the price and demand generated for cherry tomatoes.
3) The test bed will also help determine at what point the yield diminishes sufficiently to warrant the investment of in a new bed of tomatoes, thereby determining the re-planting interval specific to this area.
In late September 2011, we began installation of a 62’ X 48’ greenhouse utilizing a root-zone thermal heating system consisting of ¾ Pex tubing throughout the root zone at approximately 18” deep. The entire bottom area and surrounding the root zone was insulated with 2” rigid insulation for maximum heat retention and to create a freeze break from the rest of the earth. The entire system runs off a 30 gallon electric tank. The entire cost of installation of the greenhouse and system is in the table.
We started late. We actually did not transplant into the greenhouse until December 3 and pretty much watched the plants do very little through the end of February. By March the plants started to grow foliage and were setting flowers, then tomatoes, turning from green to orange, to cherry tomatoes by the end of April. We began selling at Market the first of May; a full three months early. Customers at the winter farmers’ market were delighted. We expected to continue to harvest through most of the fall with a drastic decline, perhaps even to zero tomatoes in December and January. However, we had a system failure during the first hard freeze (October 15) which set us back another two months. We are now at November 5 and expect to begin harvesting in the next two weeks, and then again beginning in April, unless we invest in grow lights. However, from the periods we did harvest (April through October), we were able to extrapolate sufficient harvest and sales data to support the calculations and results, as follows in the tables attached.
It bears mentioning that we were pretty sure we could sell all we grew, but we were not certain what ratio of produce we could sell at farmers’ market where we could get a price of $4.00 per pint (assuming ¾ lb. per pint, $5.67 per pound.) We were happily surprised to find that we would sell out week after week at Farmers’ Market at $4.00/pound; however, with only one market per week, we sold the remaining tomatoes to the Dixon Cooperative or to Cid’s Market in Taos at a wholesale price of $3.65 per pound. We are assuming a best and most likely case with improved heating. We were a bit fugal with the electricity and assume more heat will bring better results. We also anticipate learning from our mistakes, such as testing equipment prior to a hard freeze, so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our worst case scenario.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Outreach efforts include demonstration of the project findings during a field day on October 23, 2012. The attached fact sheet shared during the field day demonstration has been posted on the website of Comida de Campos, Incorporated (www.comidadecampos.com.)
Notice of the field day was published in the NM Acequia Association Newsletter; Noticias de las Acequias, September 2012.
It is expected that with increased learning and experience, the greenhouse could optimally result in an additional $20,000 a year; during the period when production and cash-flow typically declines to almost nothing. Also, it is pleasant to pick cherry tomatoes in a heated greenhouse when it’s snowy outside, and they do not require any special equipment for harvesting or washing.
The potential is that producers can produce vegetables that are normally shipped in during the winter months to meet consumer demand, keeping consumers at the local farmers’ market, their dollars in the local economy and in the long run, contributing to local food security.
It is still early to say how many producers will adopt this system since it will require a considerable up-front investment. However, given the initial reaction by producers who attended the field day, it is anticipated there may be future adoption of these methods; especially if there is continued USDA-NRCS funding of cold-frame kits, which can easily be adapted into a heated greenhouse.
The findings were not too surprising for the worst case scenario, but the optimal view was hopeful; especially since we shared lessons learned in the hopes that should any of them wish to follow-suit, they would not make the same mistakes. We at the farm offer continued support to any producer who might be interested in setting up a similar system.
I would recommend not skimping on the heat; you just have to know that the return is worth the investment in the extra dollars to maintain the high heat necessary for optimum production.
We plan to invest in extra methods of mitigating wind/drafts which are extremely detrimental to production and not adequately provided for in the typical greenhouse kits.
We would also recommend checking your equipment well in advance of anticipated drop in temperatures.
Next, we wish to see just how long the plants will continue to produce before production diminishes and with the addition of grow lights.