Over the past 30 years, we have witnessed the evolution of the bedding plant market, and the peaks and valleys of floriculture. With the boom of the organic market, demand for sustainably produced, local food, an influx of farmers’ markets and ultimately, an increasing army of grow-your-own foodies, many growers are converting some of their square footage to growing produce. From produce growers we came, to growing produce we are returning.
Peter Konjoian is one such grower, who made it official at the 2013 OFA Short Course, saying, “I am no longer growing flowers; I’m only growing food.”
Konjoian is a long-time grower of poinsettias and ornamental crops as co-owner of Konjoian Greenhouses in Andover, Mass., and a well-known consultant to ornamental growers through his business, Konjoian’s Floriculture Education Services. This monumental and very emotional change for him is a good barometer of the opportunities that exist in this market.
“For so many of us, this shift from flowers to food is much more than what these words state,” Konjoian says. “Many of us began our careers farming but when margins eroded and our industrial agriculture model took hold following World War II, we were forced to build greenhouses and grow flowers because they were more profitable. So this current shift may be a return to our roots and closing of a circle.”
Demand For Locally Grown Needs A Supply Source
The risky seasonal market to which ornamental growers have become accustomed can be offset by year-round vegetable and herb production to serve the demand that’s already present, Konjoian says.
“We have a lot of small and medium- size operations with a lot of empty greenhouses. Coincidentally, we have a generation of young adults that is educated and demanding healthier options in their diets,” he says. “Analogous to cheapening flowers we have created such a supply of cheap calories that our populace has become obese. In my travels and experience, I hear these young adults asking for locally grown, fresh food and are willing to pay more for it. I think that is quite encouraging and it is fueling the shift in greenhouse production to edible crops.”
Though many growers haven’t fully embraced the idea of growing produce, Konjoian says it may be just a matter of time.
“I sense a significant shift coming, perhaps in the vicinity of 25 to 50 percent of ornamental crop growers getting involved with edible crops. My reference point is circa 1995 when a round number of 10,000 operations nationally produced solely ornamental crops.”
Converting Greenhouses To Grow Food And Flowers
While there is a learning curve to switching to edibles, much of the risk some growers feel revolves around retrofitting greenhouses and following strict food safety mandates. However, for growing hydroponic vegetables, the change from ornamentals is quite significant.
“Supplemental lighting becomes a necessity rather than just an option and energy consumption must be managed well,” Konjoian says. “Most greenhouse food crop production is using hydroponic irrigation techniques. Growing without traditional soil and soilless media is a huge challenge for growers making the shift. Greenhouse owners and their growers need to learn how to forget quickly and relearn because I see many getting into this area of greenhouse production who have very little experience in traditional production. Sometimes these individuals are able to learn new techniques more quickly because they don’t bring outdated habits along.”
Advances in lighting technology for producing crops just about anywhere makes this production niche very compelling, Konjoian says.
“An exciting project I’m working on is researching prototypical LED fixtures that will allow indoor urban agriculture to occur without any natural light,” he says. “Think vacant warehouse settings and vertical farming with racks of LED lights, NFT hydroponics and the ability to tailor the crops grown to the local, ethnic tastes. How exciting is that?”
Cary Senders with iGROW, a company that produces induction lighting, agrees that advances in lighting could cause a huge shift in the way our industry uses greenhouses.
“The limitation of greenhouses is the sun,” Senders says. “But when light technology evolves, growers can be more productive with high-efficiency, low-cost lights, like iGROW.”
Senders says growing short stature plants like ornamentals in greenhouses is less efficient than constructing a vertical growing model, lighting numerous stacked platforms of plants.
“My vision is growers would use greenhouses as glass warehouses, layered with solar panels for an electricity base that would provide energy for high efficiency, low-cost lighting. Instead of using the sun as an illuminator, it would be used as a power generator for solar panels. The key to that being successful is low-heat, high-efficiency lighting.”
Food, Fiber And Beyond
Research underway at various universities is bringing woody crops like blueberries into the greenhouse as potted crops. Strawberries and raspberries are other priority crops, and local production carries a premium, says Peter Konjoian, a co-owner of Konjoian Greenhouses in Andover, Mass. Beyond food crops, other possibilities are emerging, as well.
“My research greenhouse has recently seen experiments for agronomic clients including crops like field corn, soybean and cotton,” he says. “Really? Cotton growing in a Massachusetts greenhouse? That’s crazy.”
Medical marijuana is another huge growth area as a greenhouse crop, says Carey Senders of iGROW.
“Cannabis is going to be a big focus over the next several years,” he says. “Growers are testing it now. We are quoting several jobs installing iGROW lights for trials. Most growers are not going to shift production full-scale, but trials for smaller-scale production will determine if they can get the right quality for it to be an economical crop.”
Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and personal possession is decriminalized in 16 states. With the full legalization of recreational use in Colorado and Washington, Senders says he’s getting a lot of phone calls.
“Growers in Colorado are being contacted by investment groups, to act as consultants for setting up operations in Colorado,” he says. “With more legalization, there will be a shift among growers.”