Golden Fresh Farms, based in Wapakoneta, Ohio, USA, is a high-tech tomato producer selling to leading grocery retailers in North America. In Greenhouses spoke to Luis Chibante, president and CEO of the company, to learn more about the company’s activities and high-quality, innovative approach.
The history of Golden Fresh Farms, managed by Luis Chibante (president) and Paul Mastronardi (vice president), began around four years ago. It was set up as a sister company of Golden Acre Farms near Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. “When looking to expand our operations,” explains Chibante, “I decided to build a new company here in Wapakoneta, Ohio, for several reasons. Firstly, this location in the Midwest of the USA gives us access to around 200 million people within easy driving distance, which is beneficial in terms of logistics and shelf life. Secondly, the winters are cold here, which we actually like because it helps to keep pests down to a minimum without spraying, and we aim for pesticide-free as much as we can. And thirdly, there is a high energy availability at low cost in Ohio. In fact, we don’t generate our own energy because it makes better financial sense to buy it in than produce it ourselves. That’s a big difference from Canada.”
Sustainability is an important theme for the company, which has a strong focus on quality and freshness. “We strive to grow the best products using sustainable methods. We’re positioned at the higher end of the market, but once our retail customers know that we’re an efficient greenhouse company they’re happy to enter into long-term partnerships with us,” comments Luis.
Nowadays, both retailers and consumers are increasingly realizing that cheaper is not always the best approach. It’s more a matter of how you can improve your product quality, taste, longevity and appearance. That enables you to sell 100% of your product rather than just 80% of your product with the other 20% going to waste, and waste is such a huge issue in retail. “So retailers might have to pay us a bit more, but they’re ultimately profiting a lot more. It took us a little while to create that new mindset among our customers, but they’ve now seen that it achieves real results. And the consumer is actually the winner.”
The company is already selling to most of the big retailers in the USA: Kroger, Meijer, Metro, Sobeys. “In fact, now that we’re a US company a lot of retailers are actually coming to us saying they want to stock our product because it’s locally grown and the sustainability and the product quality are better than they’re used to.”
Tradition of innovation
Now that the first phase of the construction project has been completed, Golden Fresh Farms is a 7 hectare hydroponic greenhouse facility with 75 employees. It has a production capacity of approximately 200,000 tomato plants and an annual yield of 4.5 million kilos of three types of tomatoes: beef, cluster and cocktail. At the end of expansion phases 2 and 3, which will take another 10 to 15 years, the facility will comprise around 32 hectares.
Chibante continues: “To ensure freshness and quality, it’s a very high-tech facility with a fully integrated operation from seeding and harvesting to fully automated packaging and shipping. We’ve definitely benefited from the tradition of innovation at Golden Acre Farms in Canada. That was one of the first greenhouses in North America to work with a trough system. We’re talking 18 years ago.”
In another example, before diffuse glass was invented, Golden Acre Farms was actually one of the first greenhouses in Canada to install two curtain systems, one for energy and one for diffuse light. “So we were doing diffusion before it even became popular. And then five or six years ago, we were one of the first high-tech facilities in North America in terms of lighting and robotised packaging.”
The company Thermo Energy Systems has played a key role in those innovative developments, and was instrumental in the design and construction process of the Ohio facility too. “I’ve known Henry Froese, president of the company, for more than 20 years. Even back in those early days we were both very interested in improving efficiency, so we bounced ideas off of one another – him as an engineer and me as a grower – to make his company better and to make my company better, and our partnership has evolved ever since,” recalls Chibante.
“He’s done a lot for us in Canada over the years so it was only logical for us to contact him and his company when we were planning this new facility. In the end, they built the whole greenhouse as their first-ever turnkey project. We architected the facility together – it took around a year and a half to do all the drawings – and then we found the right location. The construction work was completed in just eight months, believe it or not. We’ve been able to use all the technical knowledge gained in Canada when designing our Ohio facility.”
Benefit heat from HPS
So it obviously has diffuse glass, energy curtains and Golden Fresh Farms was set up for semi-cooling if the company decides to grow in summertime in the future. “So basically we have everything we need at our fingertips. We work with HPS lighting rather than LEDs, for two main reasons. Firstly, the energy costs are so low in Ohio that LED cost-savings aren’t a consideration, and secondly the winters here are so cold – with night-time temperatures of down to minus 5°C and daytime temperatures of below zero – that we actually benefit from the heat produced by the HPS lighting.”
Another innovative solution that Thermo Energy Systems installed at Golden Fresh Farms is a pioneering fan system by Dutch manufacturer Van der Ende Group. The unique setup of the manufacturer’s Enfan horizontal fans in conjunction with the Verti-Fan vertical fan system combines vertical and horizontal airflows to compensate for any temperature and humidity variations.
This maintains an optimal climate throughout the entire greenhouse, activating crop growth while also helping to save energy. “The horizontal fans are common over here but it’s unique to combine them with the vertical system. Everything works on sensors and is fully computer controlled, there’s no manual intervention. The need for constant air circulation depends on so many factors – the climate and light level outside, whether the curtains are closed, whether the HPS lighting is on – and for each factor the computer knows precisely when to implement the fans. This optimally balances the climate from one end of the greenhouse to the other – which is 430 metres in length and has 49 bays of 8.5 metres each – and there’s a constant air flow without any wind effect.”
The first crops were planted in the Golden Fresh Farms greenhouse in February 2017, so the coming season (September 2017-August 2018) will be the first real test, but Golden Fresh Farms’ president is pleased with the initial results. “The production numbers look really good and we’re already seeing results in the crops in terms of quality. In fact, we like the innovative air circulation system so much that we’re planning to install it in our Canadian facility too in the longer term.”
In the meantime, he has got his work cut out supervising the further expansion of the company in its mission to ensure that its US customers continue to receive the freshest, highest-quality, most environmentally sustainable and locally grown produce throughout the year.
Golden Fresh Farms, based in Wapakoneta, Ohio, USA, has recently completed phase one of what will become an 32 hectare high-tech greenhouse facility for tomatoes. This innovative hydroponic facility includes a pioneering climate control system combining horizontal and vertical fans to achieve optimal airflow the entire length of the greenhouse.
Text: Lynn Radford. Images: Golden Fresh Farms.