Next-Generation Farming Without Turning the Soil
The MightyVine Keeps Climbing
When it comes to starting a large-scale hydroponic business, "the least sexy part is the zoning," says MightyVine CEO Gary Lazarski. "You've got to deal with permits."
While the cutting-edge technology of next-generation farming allows fresh tomatoes to be grown in a hydroponic method even in the dead of a Midwest winter, it can be a slog through the mud for some new businesses to get there. With hydroponics comes a whole new set of regulations and many local governments do not have a structure for how to permit and regulate this new business.
MightyVine was developed by Chicago investor Jim Murphy, chairman of Local Foods and HandCut Foods. With Lazarski on board, they built a 7.5-acre glasshouse (think greenhouse) in 2015 in the middle of the farming community of Rochelle, Illinois, 80 miles west of Chicago. The MightyVine plot of land cuts right through the turf of large-scale conventional farming. Producers there have historically grown seasonal crops for the likes of Del Monte and other large-scale processors.
How did next-gen farming take root out here? The MightyVine acreage was originally a family farm operation but nearly a decade ago the owner sold it to a developer, who began to rip up and remove the topsoil during the first phase of construction. Then, in 2008, the recession tanked the project and the farmer got his land back. The only problem: It was no longer farmable.
By the time Lazarski and his investors were looking for their production site, this land was available, so they bought it and began their own construction. Through a twist of fate, it is once again fertile ground—even without the rich topsoil. "By using hydroponics, we're able to return that land to agricultural productivity, as it had been for generations in the farmer's family," according to Lazarski.
Many cities in the United States do not have regulations on the books for non-conventional agricultural operations. That has stopped or slowed down the start-up process for some entrepreneurs. The City of Chicago passed a landmark ordinance in 2011 that approved a zoning code amendment to accommodate commercial farms in the city. Through the work of local groups like Advocates for Urban Agriculture, and community activists, there was enough of a groundswell to convince Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the economic value of urban agriculture.
"This policy is about taking land that we have here in the City of Chicago that is literally sitting fallow both as land as well as a revenue base or tax base and turning it into a job creator and revenue creator," Emanuel said during the announcement of his support for the measure.
Other cities were slower to change zoning laws necessary to permit next-gen agriculture operations. Gotham Greens co-founder Viraj Puri's business began in New York City, which he says was not prepared to regulate urban agriculture operations a few years ago. That slowed his business's start-up plans. Chicago is a model for best practices with regulations on wastewater and urban composting for nontraditional agricultural enterprises, paving the way for other cities to rewrite ordinances.
"The City of Rochelle was very welcoming," says Lazarski. "They had infrastructure built out to get zoning," says Lazarski. MightyVine doubled in size within one year. The $11 million investment was also a boost to the City of Rochelle. Located in an Illinois Enterprise Zone, which is designed to lure companies to economically challenged regions, MightyVine's investment there will pay dividends to the local tax coffers. The company employs 60 people from the community, with plans to keep expanding.
MightyVine grows two varieties: a slicing tomato and a cherry tomato. Both are bred for freshness and taste, according to Lazarski. Industrial-farmed varieties, which are shipped from as far away as Mexico, are bred primarily for durability for travel, which makes them available in the produce section of major grocery store chains thousands of miles from the field.
Lazarski's locally grown tomatoes are sold in the grocery store chains Whole Foods Markets, Jewel Osco, Hy-Vee, Sam's Club, Plum Market and Local Foods. The company is also exploring other large chains for distribution.
Consumer awareness is key and Lazarski says customers have input when it comes to stocking the shelves. "The best thing I think from a consumer angle is to make a point that it does matter if you buy local. Ask the produce manager for whatever product because when they hear from people, it matters," says Lazarski. He admits his mother is one of the best ambassadors of his product. "My mom goes into the store and asks for MightyVine tomatoes. If they don't have them, then she'll ask for them." Lazarski says produce managers pay attention to consumer demand. "It's a groundswell that will keep local food in urban areas sustainable."