A few years ago, as a food industry entrepreneur in Chicago, Gary Lazarski started to notice something that bothered him. “My office back in 2010 was in the Loop; there were a bunch of different lunch places around there, and every sandwich and every salad you bought would have these tomatoes on them,” Lazarski tells Fast Company. “They were terrible. You’d see people sitting on a park bench, and without fail, they all do the same thing: Open up the sandwich, look at that sad, orange disk, peel it off like it was a dirty sock, and throw it out.”
We all do it, Lazarski says; when a tomato is subpar, mealy-textured, and weak-colored, we don’t think of throwing it away as wasting food, but rather as salvaging an otherwise acceptable sandwich. But why, Lazarski wondered, could Chicago, a great food city, not equip its lunch options with tomatoes that actually tasted good?
Lazarski and his business partner Jim Murphy were, at the time, piloting a food-distribution company called Local Foods, which is still operational today. Through that enterprise, they connected with some Dutch business partners, Royal Pride Holland, and on trips to the Netherlands, visited their greenhouses. Royal Pride Holland has, since its founding in 1960, been a pioneer in greenhouse growing techniques; their many-acred structures use hydroponics and radiated heat to grow produce year-round. In one greenhouse, Lazarski and Murphy saw bright red, perfect tomatoes growing in the middle of winter. They began to wonder if a glass enclosure on the outskirts of Chicago could supply the city with the elusive, quality tomatoes that would not end up in the trash.
They pulled together around a dozen investors and $11 million to develop a greenhouse built with Royal Pride Holland’s glasshouse and hydroponic technology, where they would, once launched as MightyVine in August 2015, grow both cherry and large slicing tomatoes. In the Midwest, land-grown tomatoes enjoy just a brief season, from midsummer to early fall. The best tomatoes are those that are plucked at peak ripeness and delivered fresh, but the tomatoes populating grocery store shelves in Chicago through the winter have been plucked prematurely to survive a long trip cross-country from warmer climates. MightyVine, with Lazarski as CEO, can grow and ship ripe tomatoes year-round; the produce is grown without pesticides, and the tomatoes can linger on the vine until they’re ready to be plucked. Lazarski knew the operation would fill a void in the Midwestern produce scene, but they needed land to be able to pull it off.
Rochelle, Illinois, a small city 80 miles west of Chicago, was where Lazarski and Murphy landed. “It’s well suited to get us up into Wisconsin, into Iowa, and into the city itself,” Lazarski says. While it would have been appealing for marketing purposes to locate the greenhouse in Chicago proper, logistically speaking, it would’ve been a nightmare, Lazarski says; space constraints would make it difficult to scale, and visions of tomato trucks attempting to navigate the Dan Ryan Expressway during rush hour were enough to cement the founders’ decision to locate on the outskirts.
Rochelle was a city that was poised, in the years leading up to the recession of 2008, for great economic growth, as it sat at the intersection of a number of roads that fanned out into other Midwestern economic centers like Chicago and Milwaukee. When Lazarski put out an RFP to the state of Illinois, seeking a place to site a 15-acre tomato greenhouse, he learned about a parcel that had been bought up by CenterPoint Properties, which intended to build a network of warehouses on the site. They built one, then the recession hit, and they abandoned the plans and sold the property back to its original owner, a local farmer. “You hear a lot of talk about shovel-ready projects around the recession,” Lazarski says. “This was literally shovel ready–CenterPoint had already stripped the topsoil off and run roads, water, and electricity out to the site.”
Because it was already treated for development, the land could not be farmed. When Lazarski and Murphy approached the farmer who owned the property, and explained their idea–to build a greenhouse on top of the wasted land–he was immediately on board; the farmer is now an investor and board member for MightyVine.
The greenhouse leaves a light enough environmental footprint to allow the farmer to continue working his plots of land around MightyVine’s facility. The Dutch glasshouse model includes rainwater capture capability, which prevents runoff into the field; that rainwater is then used to feed the tomatoes growing inside; MightyVine uses around 10% of the water of conventionally grown tomatoes. And because the tomatoes are distributed only around the greater Chicagoland region, the company is cutting down the carbon footprint associated with long-haul shipping.
Since October 2015, when MightyVine collected its first harvest, it’s been growing continuously. At first, only half of the greenhouse was being used, but the company, in response to demand, brought the other 7.5 acres into production this January. In a given week, MightyVine will harvest and deliver around 120,000 pounds of tomatoes. The approval of well-known chefs like Frontera’s Rick Bayless, who told Modern Farmer that he hasn’t been “so excited about a local product in a long time,” has contributed to MightyVine’s growth.
While indoor vertical farming companies like Bowery and AeroFarms are perfecting automated, data driven hydroponic models that consistently deliver large quantities of leafy greens with minimal labor, tomatoes, Lazarski says, are a more difficult product. “With lettuce, you have to get the nutrient mixture and the lighting down, but once that’s set, they will pretty much grow on their own,” Lazarski says. Tomatoes require constant pruning; there’s a lot of fussing that has to occur around a vine to ensure it grows correctly. “Until someone invents a robot that can gauge which leaves to pluck off and when, there’s going to be a strong human element in tomato growing,” Lazarski says. MightyVine has hired and trained around 80 local people, who have taken to the working conditions, Lazarksi says: The greenhouse is consistently 70 degrees, and because the tomatoes are grown in standardized hydroponic structures, they’re plucked at waist height, negating the need for injury-inducing stooping.
In order to be able to pay their workers a good living wage and benefits, Lazarski says the tomatoes are priced at a premium; while standard tomatoes retail for around $1.24 per pound, MightyVine products sell between $2.99 and $3.99 per pound. “But what we found is if you offer people a good tomato, they’re willing to pay for it,” Lazarski says. Local high-end grocery stores consistently sell the tomatoes (Local Foods, Lazarski’s and Murphy’s original venture, oversees the distribution of the produce), and some of Chicago’s most prominent restaurateurs are sourcing from MightyVine. While Lazarski cannot testify to the fate of the tomatoes once they reach people’s plates, one can only assume that they land in the trash at a much lower frequency than their pale orange competitors.