High-Tech Organic

Going behind the scenes of an organic Wholesum Harvest tomato reveals a finely crafted feat of science.

January 1, 2015

Issue 10: January/February 2015Meet Your Farmer

Close your eyes for a second and imagine a tomato. The small, round cherry is just ripe. It’s organic. It’s local. It bursts with flavor when you plop it in your mouth. But how was this imaginary tomato grown? Out in the sun? Down in the dirt? Who picked and boxed it?

If you are anything like me, you probably envisioned a tomato being plucked off the vine in some idyllic, pastoral setting—maybe in a garden. But just 40 miles south of Tucson, there is a very different kind of organic tomato being grown. Here, in the dusty little town of Amado, Wholesum Harvest’s 12-acre greenhouse produces some 187,000 pounds of tomatoes every week. And although the tomatoes grown here taste nearly as sweet as the ones you might remember from childhood summers, the setting is entirely different. This is organic meets high-tech.

Wholesum Harvest owners Ricardo and Theojary Crisantes survey an expanse of tomato vines.

Wholesum Harvest owners Ricardo and Theojary Crisantes
survey an expanse of tomato vines.

Owner Ricardo Crisantes says that people often associate the word “organic” with a lack of technology. “When you say you are an organic grower, a lot of people think that you must be working like people did in the 1800s, but that’s not us. This is high-tech.”

Indeed. In bay after bay of transparent glass the scene is repeated: rows of perfectly trained tomato vines reach upwards toward the towering greenhouse ceiling; technicians move among the rows with precise movements, some wearing lab coats and scribbling on clipboards; a constant whirring emanates from the huge fans and industrial boiler room, which supply carbon dioxide and moisture to encourage plant growth.

Taking it in for the first time, this intensive tomato production in the middle of the Arizona desert seems more like the setting for a science fiction movie than for the production of healthy food. Yet the more I listen to Crisantes talk, the more I understand how this carefully-controlled operation is linked to a very powerful vision of the future of organic food.

“‘Organics for everyone,’ is the Wholesum Harvest motto,” Crisantes says. “But with organic tomatoes selling at $5.99 a pound, we can’t achieve that. So, how do we get there?”

For Crisantes, a big part of the answer lies in this shiny, new greenhouse and the exacting use of science and technology. Crisantes explains that the greenhouse is a sophisticated tool that requires expertise and constant vigilance. If used properly, it is a tool that can alter the economics of organic and local food. “You have two options to bring organic prices down: You can increase yields or you can decrease your costs. On the costs side, there is only so much you can trim before you start to affect the quality of your product. That’s why we focus instead on continually increasing our yields,” he says.

In the shade of the greenhouse, owner Theojary Crisantes holds Wholesum Harvest’s greatest assest: organic, vine-ripened tomatoes.

In the shade of the greenhouse, owner Theojary Crisantes holds Wholesum Harvest’s greatest assest: organic, vine-ripened tomatoes.

“What happens if we can get our yields at or above conventional yields? Then organic could truly be available to everyone and we could compete with the $1.99 a pound offered in the conventional sector. That’s when people will really see that this is not about ‘healthy only for the wealthy,’ but that this is for everyone.”

Seeing the greenhouse production firsthand, Crisantes’s vision seems just within reach. Each of the operation’s 250,000 tomato plants grows at chest height in its own planting box filled with a substrate of coconut rinds and compost. The vines are trained onto a complex weaving of twine connected to the greenhouse ceiling. Drip irrigation tubes are fixed to each root system and a large plastic tunnel below each row of plants brings in a steady stream of cool, humid air and a calculated supply of carbon dioxide. Behind the light-filled production bays there are large, windowless warehouse spaces that underpin the entire operation: An enormous gas-powered boiler stands floor-to-ceiling in a dark corner, producing a constant flow of water vapor and carbon dioxide to the bays; large tanks collect and sanitize excess water for recirculation; and jet-powered vats aerate huge batches of house-brewed compost tea.

Wholesum Harvest employee Jesus Solis harvests ripe tomatoes off hanging vines; these tomatoes will get shipped across the country.

Wholesum Harvest employee Jesus Solis harvests ripe tomatoes off hanging vines; these tomatoes will get shipped across the country.

A bio-control team moves through the bays, identifying and eliminating harmful pests or bacteria. One woman moves smoothly between the rows atop a battery-powered trolley. She shakes each plant gently with one hand, startling a mild cloud of white flies from the leaves, and encourages them to fly directly into the large square of yellow, flypaper she holds in her left hand. Other members of the bio-control team fix a series of small, cardboard tabs along the rows, each containing parasitic wasp eggs. Although these wasps are nearly invisible to the naked eye, they efficiently seek out and destroy any white fly larvae that might still be lingering among the plants.

Another group of workers rolls a large tub of compost tea through each bay, applying a generous splash to each plant. The compost tea is continually tweaked. In the back room, a team of soil scientists brews large vats of the tea, monitoring the liquid for microbiotic and fungal growth and ensuring the resulting tea contains the highest possible concentrations of beneficial bacteria and nutrients.

Crisantes says they process their own compost mix and teas on site, not just to cut input costs but to improve quality. “We are constantly learning in this business. You know a number of years ago, we thought, ‘Ah, compost is simple,’ but no, there is a whole science to it. By managing the compost on site, we get to see the effect of different ingredients and proportions of things,” he says.

A top-down view of a Wholesum Harvest greenhouse.

A top-down view of a Wholesum Harvest greenhouse.

From seed to harvest, every step of Wholesum Harvest’s production is calibrated, monitored, and adjusted to maximize yields and minimize losses. “My father has an analogy for this business,” Crisantes says. “When you begin, you start with a seed that has 100 percent of its productive potential. But every mistake you make along the way takes a little bit away from that original potential. Whether your timing is wrong or you get infested by pests, or something else happens, all of those mistakes add up and take away from that great potential you started with.”

Harvesting all that great potential is one reason the company transitioned its production to controlled environments. The family business has come a long way since Crisantes’ Greek grandfather started it in the open fields of Sonora in 1928. By the time Crisantes’ father took over the business in the 1980s, they’d begun experimenting with greenhouses. At first, the structures were just haphazard collections of metal poles and stretched plastic. But as the technology became more refined, they built better structures. Finally, in 2012, with the help of a private loan in the United States, the family invested in the 12-acre greenhouse in Amado.

Business is booming for Wholesum Harvest. Their tomatoes are sold throughout the United States, and the high-tech, controlled greenhouse environment allows for entirely organic production. Because Arizona provides nearly year-round sun and round-the-clock production, Wholesum Harvest is able to attract a highly skilled and year-round labor force, avoiding the seasonal dips in employment so common in other border industries. Eventually, the Crisantes family’s dream is to expand the Amado greenhouse production to cover the entire 60-acre lot, allowing them to increase production by more than five times what it is today.

Curious about doing business on both sides of the border, I ask Crisantes about challenges and benefits on each side, thinking that there had to be much higher costs for labor and inputs for their U.S. production.

Greenhouse-grown cherry tomatoes ripen on a vine.

Greenhouse-grown cherry tomatoes ripen on a vine.

To my surprise, he gently rebuffed my logic. “You’d think that would be a logical assumption, that labor costs would be much higher here, but this greenhouse system was designed in Holland specifically to optimize labor. That means that our biggest investment is actually the greenhouse infrastructure itself and not the labor.” Indeed, while their 15-acre operation in Sonora employs some 300 people, here in Amado, the only slightly smaller 12-acre greenhouse operates with just 87 employees. What’s more, because the upfront costs for the greenhouse are so substantial, the Crisantes family had a much easier time securing loans in the United States than in Mexico.

After peering down the rows of tomatoes one last time, I turn to leave. It’s nearly noon and greenhouse workers are gathering around to purchase sandwiches from a woman selling food and drink from the back of a pick-up truck. A flutter of bird’s wings from a nearby tree breaks the constant hum emanating from the greenhouse.

Back in Tucson, I speak with Gene Giacomelli, the director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, to discuss some lingering questions I have about the sustainability of high-tech, large-scale greenhouse production. Like Crisantes, Giacomelli is quick to enumerate the benefits of greenhouse production: “In terms of the controlled environments for growing any crop, you can use water more efficiently; you can protect it from the environment, meaning the natural weather; you can guarantee a product. If you like the taste of the tomato today—not everybody does—you go there and buy it a year from now and it will taste exactly the same. There’s a consistency. The grower knows what he’s getting and the brand name on it should tell the consumer and the markets what they’re getting.”

Giacomelli says that controlled environment production offers important benefits for organic production and agricultural labor. In the open field, growers have to do a lot more physical work to produce organically and cannot guarantee that sudden changes in the weather won’t jeopardize a crop. And, the year-round production of greenhouses eliminates the need for farmworkers to migrate with the crops or face seasonal unemployment. “If farm work was my life,” says Giacomelli, “I would go in that direction [of greenhouse employment] because of the security of potentially higher wages than in the open field and the quality of life—I could settle nearby and have a home and a family. So socially, I’ve got to believe it’s a good thing.”

But when examining the overall energy footprint and environmental impact of greenhouses, Giacomelli becomes more ambivalent. Comparing open field and greenhouse production requires complex calculations of the entire life cycle of a crop. The savings in water and chemical inputs of greenhouses must be considered in relation to the energy demands of that greenhouse, the materials used, and the hours of labor.

The Wholesum Harvest greenhouse stretches on and on.

The Wholesum Harvest greenhouse stretches on and on.

“The bottom line is, if you compare those to the open field, there will be times when the open field wins hands down [as] better, but there are many more times when it doesn’t,” he says. “The thing is that we need [greenhouses] as, to use a poor analogy, another tool in the toolbox. Let’s put it to use where and when it makes the most sense.”

While I still wonder about the energy footprints of greenhouses, their effects on labor, and the implications of isolating agriculture from larger environmental cycles, I leave Giacomelli’s office still interested in controlled environment technology. Indeed it seems sustainability in food production can only be understood as a complex spectrum of trade-offs. In greenhouses, these trade-offs include fewer pesticides in exchange for greater energy use; fewer but better jobs for farmworkers; guaranteed production, but no feedback loops with larger ecological cycles such as the maintenance of pollinator populations or beneficial insects.

In other words, each production decision creates a ripple effect in the human, environmental, and political economic context connected to how we eat. The implications of these rippling effects offer no easy conclusions. However, the owners of Wholesum Harvest make a compelling case for the high-tech organic route. After all, who doesn’t want “organics for everyone?” ✜

Laurel Bellante is a Ph.D. student in Geography and Development and member of the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council. She is lover and writer of all things food.

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