By Blair Andrews, Farm & Food Care
Greg Devries, a farmer from Chatham-Kent, is hoping to use innovation and a unique partnership to redefine the greenhouse vegetable industry. If successful, his efforts could also get people to think about tomatoes in a “greener” way.
Devries is the president of Truly Green Farms, a company that is gradually building a 90-acre greenhouse complex across the road from the GreenField Ethanol plant in Chatham.
In a first for North America, the greenhouse operation will be using carbon dioxide (CO2) and low-grade, waste heat from the ethanol plant to help grow the tomatoes. The concept is to take a greenhouse gas like CO2 that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere, and use it to produce a healthy food product.
“In the greenhouse industry, there’s two large cost centres. One is heat and one is labour,” says Devries. “We decided that if we are going to remain competitive in the future, we needed to build an operation that would be able to reduce those two key costs.”
On the heat side, conventional greenhouses use natural gas-fired hot water boilers for heat. The hot water, heated to a temperature of 90 C, is distributed through a series of pipes to the greenhouse to create radiant heat. The greenhouse also uses the CO2 produced by the boilers during the heating process.
“It was found, a number of years ago, that in a greenhouse environment, if you can increase the levels of CO2 higher than in ambient air, you actually get a response from the plant,” says Devries. “The plant is healthier, the fruit quality is better, perhaps even bigger, and yield goes up.”
During the summer months the need for heat is obviously lower. Although the boilers are used to produce heat for humidity control, the limited amount of heat generated in the summer results in less CO2 produced for the tomato plants.
Unfortunately for greenhouses, the summer is also the optimal time for plants to use the CO2. “The crop is getting the most amount of daylight and it’s hitting the maximum level of production, but we can’t give it the highest level of CO2 because we can’t make it at that time,” says Devries.
Enter the partnership with GreenField Ethanol.
In addition to making ethanol from corn, the process also produces two by-products: distillers’ grains for livestock feed and CO2.
“We can now get a stream of CO2 and put the higher levels of C02 in the greenhouse during the most productive time of the year at levels that most people haven’t been able to achieve,” says Devries. “Some of the research that we’ve done suggests that we could probably get another three to five per cent increase in yields.”
Given that tomatoes are the most efficient greenhouse vegetable when it comes to using CO2, all of Truly Green’s production at the location will be greenhouse tomatoes.
They’re now growing tomatoes-on-the-vine and grape tomatoes in 22.5 acres in the project’s first phase.
Truly Green and GreenField have also engineered a solution to utilize the waste heat from the ethanol plant to help heat the greenhouse and significantly reduce its energy costs.
As the operation reduces its carbon footprint by using the CO2 and waste heat, Devries is eying the idea of marketing a “greener” tomato.
“As our impact on the environment is going to be much lower than a conventional greenhouse, we’re hoping there’s an opportunity in the marketplace where we can actually get a premium from consumers that are environmentally-conscious,” said Devries.
For GreenField, the partnership is helping the ethanol producer diversify its business.
Beyond producing ethanol, GreenField is seeking to establish a bio-refinery hub.
“Because that investment needs to take place on their side of the fence, it’s a benefit for Truly Green,” says Devries. “And so it becomes a very unique relationship – an innovative relationship – in that they become a provider of a utility.”
Truly Green is owned by three families in Chatham-Kent. The Devries family, Hilco and Anne Tamminga, and Phil and Janice Bultje are planning to build a total of 90 acres over four phases at 22.5 acres per phase. The first phase was completed last year.
In addition to increasing local food production and having a positive impact on the environment, the company hopes to provide an economic boost to the area. Quoting industry statistics, Devries says one acre of greenhouse production creates two jobs inside the plant and two indirect jobs outside the plant.