This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
I’m the neighborhood tomato doctor.
After a dozen years of growing tomatoes, I’ve become a go-to person on neighborhood chat groups and over the fence questions about the red fruit that loves to pretend it’s a vegetable.
“What’s wrong with my tomatoes?” That’s the question I get. It’s usually nothing serious — too much water, usually. The answer that I usually bite back on is, “You’re growing them in Utah.”
Utah, as a cold, high-mountain desert state, is about the worst place to grow these tropical fruits, but I and countless others still try.
While we struggle to grow enough slicer and grape tomatoes to produce the occasional dazzling Instagram post, one Utah business may have cracked the proverbial atom on tomato growing.
Longvine Growing Co. greenhouse in Mona produces a million pounds of tomatoes year-round in its state-of-the-art 23-acre greenhouse. Not only are they productive, but they may be reinventing agriculture for the climate change era.
Yellow + purple = green
If you find yourself in Mona some evening this October, look up.
To the east you’ll see Mount Nebo in snowcapped majesty. To the west, you might just spy a spectral purple glow and serpentine shadows crawling up Long Ridge Mountain.
No, it’s not a Halloween gimmick.
“I really need to get those curtains up,” explains Travis Jones. Travis is the general manager of the Longvine Mona greenhouse in Juab County, north of Nephi. As a resident of Mona, he feels a certain urgency about installing the 23-acre greenhouse’s light suppression curtains.
“I don’t like disturbing the neighbors.”
The lights are a new installment. Cool purple LED lights alongside the hot yellow, high-pressure sodium lights. Travis explains that the 6,800 new LEDs will mean a reduction in energy use of 10 million kilowatt-hours per year, or the equivalent energy consumption of 1,200 homes.
The lights are impressive, but nothing compared to the seemingly endless rows of green beneath them.
Sprouting from boxes of coco coir set at waist height, the plants stretch toward the yellow and purple artificial suns. Coco coir is a fibrous natural byproduct of coconuts, prized as a growing medium for its ability to hold water.
“Obviously it’s not just a clever name,” said Jones, referring to the company’s recent rebranding from Houweling USA to Longvine Growing Co.
The greenhouse is divided into three sections. The first two grow indeterminate (i.e., they just keep growing) round slicer tomatoes. These vining tomatoes crawl up kite strings to a height of 10 feet. Once they reach the top, more line reels out, and the plants keep climbing — a sort of treadmill for tomato plants.
At the bottom, ripe tomatoes are picked, then leaves and stems are stripped and the plant wraps around its coconut coir base.
“When they get to be about 10 months old, they’re 30 feet long.”
The answer is partly in the lights above, which allow for the maximum of 18 hours of growing time per day, and in what’s below the green canopy.
Water and fertilizer filter through to the coco growing medium. Any water not absorbed is filtered and recycled until “100% of the water is depleted.”
Below the plants, you find giant white tubes, like long party balloons covered in large, round holes.
“This is where heat for the plants and CO2 comes in,” said Jones.
CO2 is carbon, which is to say food or fertilizer for the tomatoes. But where does it come from? For that, you have to step next door.
Location, Location, Location.
Looking at the Longvine greenhouse and its neighbor, the Curran Creek Natural Gas Power Plant, something definitely looks off.
On the right, Currant Creek boasts four smokestacks and one long, massive horizontal tube. This tube stretches across the road to plug into the side of the Longvine greenhouse on the left.
This long horizontal straw is a new addition to the plant and redirects emissions from the stack. “The big exhaust pipe takes the place of the primary two stacks,” explains Jones. While the greenhouse doesn’t absorb all of the CO2 from the primary stacks, it absorbs as much as it can — using some for heat and hydraulics, and some to double the CO2 in the greenhouse air.
They will also soon absorb more of that CO2 as they add another 30 acres of greenhouse dedicated to cucumbers. While Longvine did not provide an exact figure on how much carbon is captured by the greenhouse, they also see greenhouse gas offsets as their business model shortens supply and transportation lines.
Capturing carbon from an existing power plant and super-efficient use of water and energy are not the end of sustainability at Longvine.
Longvine supplies food, not to far-flung corners of the globe, but to Utah and Idaho. You can find Longvine’s tomatoes in the produce section at major distributors like Costco and Walmart.
“Our high productivity means we’re able to provide tomatoes year-round in the Mountain West,” said Jones. “It’s not on a truck coming from Mexico for two weeks picked green. So you get better taste, better flavor, and you reduce your carbon footprint because it’s not spending all that energy just to get it up here.”
The greenhouse goes to great lengths to minimize pesticides and fungicides. Workers remain confined to assigned tomato rows, wear clean suits, and go through a foot wash station as they pass from one greenhouse section to another.
Whiteflies, the bane of tomato greenhouses, which lay their eggs on tomato leaves, are controlled by the release of Encarsia formosa, a predatory, near-microscopic wasp that lays its eggs in immature whitefly.
“Their babies burst out of the whitefly like in the movie ‘Alien’,” said Jones. Gruesome, but effective.
Longvine is part of a movement in sustainable agriculture called controlled-environment agriculture (CEA). Innovations in CEA often have a sci-fi feel to them that goes beyond “Alien.” This is certainly true of vertical agriculture, such as the Grov Technologies sustainable agriculture project in Elberta, but it also applies to high-tech greenhouses like Longvine.
Dave Chen, CEO & Chairman at Equilibrium Capital, which invests in and manages sustainable agriculture properties including Longvine, believes that Utah has a key role to play in the future of agriculture.
Chen sees major disruption ahead for agriculture as climate change creates an environmental and economic imperative for change. “We may see more technology come into agriculture in the next 10 years than we have in the last 10,000,” he said at the recent One Utah Summit.
“For 10,000 years the question was, ‘Where is your farm?’” said Chen, who also serves on the advisory council to The Tribune’s Innovation Lab, “because if I knew where your farm was, I knew what your soil was, what your climate was, and what you could plant. The new question is, ‘Where is my customer and what do they want to eat?’”
Through contained-environment agriculture, growing tomatoes may finally make sense in Utah and other dry, cold locations which may otherwise have the right conditions for greenhouse growing.
Even without the greenhouses, parasitic wasps, and futuristic lights, I’m sure my neighborhood tomato doctor practice won’t go out of business next year.