It’s harvest time for tomatoes in the New River Valley. That’s not as strange as it sounds because these tomatoes are growing inside a huge greenhouse in the New River Valley.
The new venture promises to bring jobs --and more locally grown tomatoes to the region.
You may have already seen tomatoes from Red Sun Farms in supermarkets. The parent company in Mexico has hundreds of acres of greenhouses there and in Canada, but this is the first time they’ll grow the fruit here. And by here, we mean Dublin Virginia.
"We’re here because of location and what is entailed with location is altitude, sunny days, cool nights and from a strategic standpoint, we’re here because of where we are in the mid-Atlantic," says Jay Abbott, Director of Operations.
Red Sun Farms invested $20 million in the project. It got help from the governor’s opportunity fund, mostly to prepare the site near the New River Valley Airport for this partially pre-fab green house. It’s made by a company in the south of France, and assembled on site. So far they’ve put 18 acres under glass and plan to add the other 30 starting in 2016.
Walking into a green house this time of year feels like getting off an airplane in the tropics. In here it’s around 80 degrees and humid under bright sun, a climate appreciated not only by visitors, but also by the 90,000 8 foot high tomato plants, their ripening fruits stretching toward the tempered glass ceiling.
Red Sun Farms hired around 40 workers in the last 5 months, most at around 10 dollars an hour. They ride down the long isles on electric vehicles inside what looks like a towering tomato forest.
"I was contemplating that today. That it’s amazing that a seed that’s smaller than the tip of my finger nail will grow into a plant that will grow produce around a hundred pounds of tomatoes a year," says master grower, John Secker. He’s been doing this kind of work for thirty years and he says the wholesale price of tomatoes has not changed much in that time.
"What has changed is the level of output. When we first started, to give you an example, we were getting - a good year would be-45 kilograms per square meter. Now we’re looking at 65 to 70 kg per square meter. So we’ve almost doubled our production in the last 30 years but yet the price of tomatoes hasn't gone up," he says.
Secker says tomatoes still fetch 50 -60 cents a pound, but for organic tomatoes, the price is higher, a gap he believes will close in the next decade or so. A third of the tomatoes grown here are organic.
"I think some of this high tech organic and large businesses getting into organics is what’s lowering the costs," says Megan O’Rourke, Assistant Professor of Food Science at Virginia Tech.
O’Rourke says sales or organics account for around 30 billion dollars in sales. And they’re growing at 10 per cent a year. “Certainly there is going to be vast quantities of locally produced tomatoes available in south west Virginia. Technically if you’re talking about local produce, according to USDA definitions that’s purchasing within a 400-mile distance."
The first harvest from Red Sun Farms will start showing up in Krogers and Food Lions all over Virginia and North Carolina in a few weeks.
Again, Operations Manager, Jay Abbott. "If it has a Red Sun Farm label and it says ‘product of the US’ it came from Dublin.”
Today is the grand opening of Red Sun Farms Greenhouses in Dublin. Governor Terry McAuliffe, company officials and local leaders will attend the ribbon cutting.