In a massive greenhouse facility located off Route 100 in Dublin, the roots are anchoring into the soil and the vines are growing upward for Pulaski’s new industry.
The employees at Red Sun Farms planted their first tomatoes at the Dublin facility this past Thursday, July 31. The high-tech greenhouse is one of the largest in North America, according to the location’s Director of Operations, Jay Abbott.
Abbott said that delivery trucks arrived at the facility with the first plants just after 8 a.m. that morning, with more on the way. Between Thursday and Friday, 60,000 tomato plants were sown in the greenhouse’s hydroponics area, a majority of the nearly 20 acres dedicated to growing them.
Those 60,000 plants are now growing under a near million square feet of glass. The other part of the facility, which will be dedicated to growing tomatoes organically, is still under construction, although completion is expected in the next couple of weeks.
“Even though it’s growing, it’s not gardening, so everything we do is obviously done on a large scale,” said Abbott.
For the vast amount of plants that were put into their hydroponic spots this past weekend, it was a first time experience for many of the local employees hired to tend to them. According to Abbott, about five of the initial 30 employees working Thursday had experience working in a larger scale greenhouse environment.
“Really, we wanted people who were used to a fast pace in manufacturing,” Abbott said. “We’ve hired people who are used to light manufacturing type jobs, and a lot of manual dexterity is important. We also find that people that work independently, because they have a large area to take care of.”
The employees at Red Sun Farms are broken into three main subcategories – crop care, harvesting, and packing. Each person working in the greenhouse is responsible for tending to several rows of tomato plants.
For the first day of work, the duties of the day were mainly focused on planting the tomatoes in their pod sections along a long line of PVC piping. The plants in those rows are then irrigated through a digital system and fertilized by in house experts.
The initial priority, however, was getting the plants off their carts and into their rows. For Craig Palmer, one of the local hires at the greenhouse, planting in a hydroponic environment was a whole new experience.
“Other than my grandma’s garden, that’s about it,” Palmer said of his experience growing tomatoes in his lifetime. “She just worked with soil, we’re working with hydroponics, so that’s a lot different than working in your back yard.”
As Palmer moves the plants from the carts to their piping, his chlorophyll-stained hands appropriately symbolize the “green thumb” that he and other workers are acquiring at the new facility.
Abbott said the company hopes to bring in about 80 to 100 more employees by Christmas time. By then, a distribution center will also have been built at the site.
The tomatoes grown in Dublin will be distributed throughout Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. According to Abbott, a small amount of the crops harvested may be sent to Canada as well, but they are focusing mainly on the mid Atlantic, as a majority of the produce grown by Red Sun Farms is distributed east of the Mississippi River.
“From a logistics and strategic part, it’s within a day’s drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population,” Abbott said. “So from a distribution standpoint, that’s important as well.”
In addition to shipping proximity, there were more science-driven factors that led to Red Sun Farms’ decision to build a greenhouse in Dublin. Elevation and climate played a huge role in winning that location.
“The climate was a big part of us being here, not only the elevation, but also the microclimate of the New River Valley,” Abbott said. “There’s data that shows it has cooler nights, a little but less humidity, and the amount of sunlight that hits the ground because of the elevation is important as well.”
“For here, we were shooting for the cool nights, and we prefer the day time temperatures to be below 90 degrees, but this has been a cool summer,” he added.
Elevation helps with temperature and light. Without that asset, the plants grown at that location would have lower crop yields, a higher likelihood of disease, and the greenhouse wouldn’t be able to produce enough to financially justify its operations.
According to Abbott, the tomatoes planted at Red Sun Farms grow faster than they would in a traditional setting. As the plants are non-GMO organically certified, this is mainly owed to the methods used to nurture the plants as they grow.
“If you’re growing tomatoes in your garden and watering them every day, you’re probably over watering them, if you water it once a week you’re probably under watering it, so it’s not the ideal conditions all the time,” Abbott said. “The way we operate here is under ideal conditions every day. You water it when it needs watering, you feed it when it needs feeding, so it’s a constant care.”
He pointed out that for the same size area that could yield eight pounds of tomatoes, Red Sun Farms can produce up to 150 pounds, mainly due to efficiency down to the smallest details.
“We use 90 to 95 percent less water than a comparable field crop, so its very efficient from a water standpoint,” Abbot said. “Any over watering here is captured and recycled, so there’s no evaporation rate.”
At the same time, the tomatoes grown in the greenhouse are not treated with pesticides. Although that’s an option, Abbott said they manage pests by employing other insects.
Those insects include bumblebees for pollination, as well as predatory wasps and other similar insects to prey on threatening species such as whiteflies. Abbott described it as pest management, as opposed to pest control.
“We have a lot of beneficial insects in the greenhouse,” Abbott said. “We know we’re going to have some, and we have to manage it accordingly, to the best help of the plant. None of the pests that get in here are harmful to humans, but can be harmful to the quality of the fruit.”
With the absence of pesticides and genetic modification, the tomatoes grown at Red Sun Farms’ Dublin greenhouse are within their own variety. According to Abbott, having that control is a benefit of using a greenhouse to grow produce.
“In a greenhouse you control a lot of things, and can mainly genetically modify a seed or any kind of plant to withstand something that its encountering in the environment to increase your yield,” Abbott said. “We don’t use anything genetically modified within the entire company because we’re greenhouse growers, and we focus on growing.”
The first harvest of tomatoes from the Dublin greenhouse is expected in early October.