The greenhouses seemingly stretch for miles, producing millions of quality flowers and fresh vegetables destined for a country an ocean away.
Which country is the destination? It’s ours, of course, and those never-ending greenhouse facilities are the ones Joe Geremia sees when he visits Canada, The Netherlands and other countries across the world. Geremia, co-owner and president of Geremia Greenhouse in Wallingford, Conn., is awestruck by greenhouse operations beyond our borders.
But he also wonders about opportunities U.S. growers are missing– particularly with vegetables. Not just to combat imports, but to accelerate consumer growth, improve food safety and become food providers should a day come when the United States can no longer rely on vegetables by sea or sky.
So rather than wonder about missed opportunities, Geremia is taking action to create them for his operation and others. He’s planning to build a commercial greenhouse on his property called the Agricultural Learning Center For Greenhouse Technology and use it as an education center focused on producing locally grown produce–an unconventional approach for a bedding and flowering plant grower like Geremia, but a necessity, he says, to ensure quality futures for the next generations.
“If something globally happens where product can no longer get here, we’re in trouble,” Geremia says. “Greenhouse growers producing flowers every day are doing a great job, but we need to be better educated in case of a disaster. If there’s a natural disaster or terrorist attack– nothing we want to think about but everyone with covered square footage should–we should all be educated to switch to vegetable production.
“Of course, we didn’t build our facility for growing vegetables. But our greenhouses can be retrofitted to grow food in case there ever is a disaster.”
Interest In Education
With its current facility, Geremia Greenhouse is essentially a typical bedding and flowering plant grower. The operation grows cyclamen, primrose and pansies early in the year, transitions to hydrangeas, tulips and other crops for Easter, and moves to larger container items like sunflowers and zinnias come June. Then, of course, there’s poinsettia season.
Bedding and flowering plants have been good to Geremia Greenhouse over the years. They’re the rock that’s built Geremia Greenhouse into a successful, 6.5-acre greenhouse operation serving independent garden centers and florist suppliers, and they’ll continue to play a large role in production as the operation goes forward.
But the way Geremia sees it, vegetables are the bigger opportunity right now. Vegetable sales were up for the operation last year over 2008, and Geremia anticipates even more promise with vegetables in 2010.
“There is more money in vegetables than there is in flowers right now,” Geremia says.
Thus, the idea for Geremia’s technology education center was born. When Geremia seeks new technology for his facility, he’ll typically shop outside the country first. He’d prefer to discover new technologies at home and introduce them to growers who aren’t aware such technologies exist, though.
“In vegetable production, you really only see Dutch immigrants here with successful vegetable operations,” Geremia says. “If people are trained quickly and have the right knowledge and if we have engineers who know about the right greenhouse construction for vegetables, there will be more people stepping into greenhouses.”
Geremia’s education center is still a work in progress. Financing is the biggest obstacle keeping the project from completion. Geremia has already selected a design company, BL Companies, to build the facility, which will cost $25 million. Geremia also has the support of organizations and politicians at the local and state levels.
Still, Geremia Greenhouse has a few more boundaries to break through before breaking ground.
“There’s been a strong government push to finance,” Geremia says. “Some people say we should go for private money. The one thing we tell everyone–government-funded or not–is that this is necessary. It’s more education for growers.
“I would like to see whoever finances this–or is in charge of this– make it so information is free. We would like to be part of the first one in the United States and set the ground for others. We want to be a part of the change in our industry. We don’t necessarily want to drive the shift. We just want to be the guy pushing it right now.”
Phil Banning, co-owner and vice president of Geremia Greenhouse, agrees.
“We’re very much behind educating our fellow growers and educating ourselves to do vegetable production,” Banning says. “Some of the numbers are staggering when you look at the imports coming into the country. There are, often times, no guidelines for safety. Our ultimate goal is to educate ourselves and educate our educators.
Geremia, Banning and others at Geremia Greenhouse have educated themselves over the years, and their education is seen through advances like flood floors, transplanters and conveyors at their own facility. Geremia’s structures are also a product of exploration.
“Years ago, we started looking into different kinds of greenhouse structures that were more economical to operate,” Geremia says. “We built an open-roof structure developed from one of our local greenhouse builders. It works great, and we’ve built two more open-roof greenhouses here since.”
Geremia Greenhouse also uses environmental controls and irrigation equipment from Argus and TrueLeaf Technologies, which help the operation maximize heating and cooling efficiency. Trough watering benches are another investment, and Geremia still uses them along with an ebb-and-flood bench system that recycles water. Additionally, two acres of the facility feature flood floors, which include a component Geremia Greenhouse developed to partially saturate pots.
Most recently, the operation installed two wood boilers from Bio-Fuel Technologies that heat every inch of the facility year-round.
“Since we put them in, we have burned very little oil and keep the system as a backup if we need it,” Geremia says. “The boilers heat 90,000-gallon water tanks and the Argus controls use that water to heat the greenhouses. The system has really [improved] the way we heat.”
Now, Geremia’s mission is to improve the way he and others grow. He envisions greenhouse growers dividing their operations into two parts– flowers and vegetables–and he wants to make sure future generations are well fed.
“That’s why we came up with this plan to build the greenhouse,” Geremia says. “We want to have all eyes on it. We’d like everyone to take a pill and wake up the next morning knowing all the advances in greenhouse technology and what’s coming in the next 10 years. This won’t be for everyone. Some people may simply change the light bulbs in their facility, but other growers may say they want to feed their whole town.”