Vegetables, Not Flowers, Are The Future For Peter Konjoian

Peter Konjoian
Peter Konjoian

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 ornamentals growers are converting some of their square footage to produce.

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.

We asked why he thinks food is a viable future for greenhouse growers and what challenges growers may face incorporating vegetables into their production systems.

Q: Over the next 30 years, what crops will become more relevant and profitable for growers?

Konjoian: It appears that the industry wide consolidation phase that we’ve lived through for the past 20 years is finally settling down. We have fewer operations producing ornamental crops today and economic signs are positive that those still in business will be able to regain their footing. While I continue to question why our industry needs to make flowers so cheap, I also understand that a free market economy tends to drive its buses in this direction.

So, we have a lot of small and medium sized 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. Analogous to cheapening flowers we have created such a supply of cheap calories that our populous has become obese. In my travels and experience I hear these young adults asking for locally grown, fresh food and they 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.

Farmers’ markets are exploding across the country and pull in more than local vegetable production. Meat, bread, honey; you name it and there’s a locally grown farmer to support.

Q: In your opinion, what percentage of current ornamental growers will convert their greenhouse space from growing flowers/ornamental crops to food crops?

Konjoian: 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.

Q: Beyond food and flowers, what fiber/medicinal crops could be grown viably and profitably in greenhouses?

Konjoian: Funny you ask this question. During my presentation at last year’s OFA Short Course titled “From Flowers to Food” I mentioned how my research greenhouse has recently seen experiments for agronomic clients including crops like field corn, soybean, and cotton. Really? Cotton growing in a Massachusetts greenhouse? That’s crazy.

There is very active research being conducted at various universities that is bringing woody fruit crops like blueberries into the greenhouse as potted crops. Another priority crop is strawberries. Local production carries a premium. Beyond this category, and you mentioned it, not me, is medicinal marijuana. Many believe this crop will soon become a legally produced greenhouse crop.

Q: What currently prevents growers from converting their greenhouses?

Konjoian: There is such a variety of systems and approaches to producing edible greenhouse crops that I see nothing unusually challenging about shifting from flowers to food. Supplemental lighting becomes a necessity rather than just an option and energy consumption must be managed well. An attractive aspect of shifting to edible crops is that the market demand is constant throughout the year. Growing flowers came down to making 80 percent of one’s annual income over a high-pressure six week period during the spring season. Such a risk is spread over twelve months with food crops.

Q: What technology will be necessary to grow these alternative crops?

Konjoian: Most greenhouse food crop production is using hydroponic irrigation techniques. Growing without traditional soil and using 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.

Q: With LED technology improving, what could greenhouse structures look like/evolve into over the next 30 years?

Konjoian: An exciting project I’m working on is researching prototypical LED fixtures that will allow indoor urban agriculture to occur without any natural light. 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.

Q: What ornamental crops will continue to be relevant?

Konjoian: I believe ornamental crops will continue to be relevant but at a slightly diminished level than in our industry’s glory days of the 1980s. Plant breeders will continue to provide excellent new genetics that will fuel production and consumption of flowers in our lives.

That said, I expect these same breeders to deliver new edible crop genetics so that we can grow whatever food crops we choose, based on local market demand, at any time of the year. As an example, I’d love to see a tomato cultivar bred that is determinate, say, growing to two feet in height at the most, and producing several hands of fruit. Picture this tomato configuration in a warehouse with multiple levels of production. How cool would that be?

For so many of us this shift from flowers to food is much more than what these words state. 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, for many of us this current shift is more of a return to our roots and closing of a circle.

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