EuroFresh Farms leader in greenhouse tomato production

EuroFresh Farms in Willcox, Ariz., is the largest U.S. producer of greenhouse tomatoes. The company combines high-tech production methods and products with the state’s ample supply of sunshine and water.

Fons Aldenzee, second from left, discusses the progress of tomatoes with growers.

The firm was founded in 1990 in Pennsylvania by Johan van den Berg and Wil van Heyningen, third-generation greenhouse owners from Holland. Johan van den Berg serves as chief executive officer. In 1992, the firm moved to Willcox.

The greenhouse production meets a niche market for high-quality tomatoes as the demand for year-round fresh produce continues to grow. Tomatoes on the vine, known in the industry as TOVs, increase shelf life for the fresh produce.

According to USDA statistics, the U.S. shipped about 400 million pounds of greenhouse tomatoes for sale in 2010, while the U.S. imported 1.28 billion pounds of greenhouse tomatoes. This disparity indicates that room remains for growth in the greenhouse-produced tomato industry.

EuroFresh has 218 acres of tomatoes under glass at the Willcox site and 44 acres of cucumbers under glass in Snowflake, Ariz. In addition to tomatoes on the vine, EuroFresh produces Roma, small-sized Bella Bites and Campari cocktail tomatoes. The Snowflake site produces long English and mini cucumbers. With the increased focus on healthy snacks to replace high-carb, high-fat snacks, small fruits and vegetables are gaining popularity.

EuroFresh produces about 100 million pounds of tomatoes and about 40 million pounds of cucumbers.

Tomatoes grow in a climate-controlled environment where temperature, humidity, irrigation, ventilation and carbon dioxide levels are managed. The quantity of sunshine is a key ingredient in the mix, and was a major factor in selecting the southern Arizona site as a base for the growing operation. The technically advanced greenhouses and production components create an environment that successfully produces the crops and does so economically thanks to the natural elements and available labor supply.

High-tech production

Fons Aldenzee, the company’s chief operating officer, said, “To produce tomatoes year-round, a certain amount of sunlight is required for photosynthesis. Very few regions in the U.S. have enough natural sunlight to produce fruit in the winter months. Only the very most southern regions have enough natural radiation to produce tomato and cucumber crops.”

EuroFresh uses products manufactured by Mardenkro in The Netherlands to help manage the amount of sunlight that reaches the growing plants. ReduHeat is applied to the greenhouse roofs in the spring to help reduce the amount of sunlight, and ReduFuse is applied to help diffuse the winter sunlight.

Tomatoes on the vine are harvested.

Aldenzee said, “The product increases photosynthesis by utilizing the lower leaves on the plants under the winter light conditions in Arizona, resulting in bigger fruit and better production.” The products are applied with roof sprayers and are removed when the benefit is reduced.

Greenhouses are Venlo-type. Aldenzee said, “We have our own construction personnel, and we build the structures ourselves.” The steel components are from Duynisveld in the Netherlands and aluminum for the roof systems is from Alcupro in the Netherlands. The glass is from Guardian’s California location.

During the day, greenhouses are primarily heated by the sun. When temperatures drop after sunset, they’re heated with hot water that runs through a central piping system. The boilers for the system are fired by natural gas with diesel fuel as an emergency backup.

EuroFresh tomatoes are promptly delivered to customers for maximum freshness.

“We can open ventilation windows in the roof to get rid of excess heat from the sun,” Aldenzee said. “Once the ventilation capacity is not sufficient, we have a pad and fan system to cool down the greenhouse in midsummer.” The pad and fan system is essentially a big swamp cooler, the traditional desert cooling system used before air conditioning made its way into the desert.

Fertilization, disease management and pollination

Fertigation has been increasingly used in field-grown crops, and the same process is used in EuroFresh’s greenhouses. Aldenzee said, “Fertilizers are introduced in special irrigation units at the time that water is being pumped toward the greenhouses. We have target values for the exact fertilizer mix in the feed as well as the growing medium, and we take biweekly water samples to check for deviations to the targets and make adjustments accordingly.”

Pests and disease are controlled with an integrated pest and disease management (IPDM) system. This system involves catching bugs with yellow sticky traps that are strategically placed throughout the greenhouses. “We do a lot of scouting to find out what bugs fly in, when they fly in and in what quantities,” Aldenzee said. “Based on the scouting reports and historical data, we put in the natural enemy of each bug, both preventative and curative. As a last resort, we do chemical spot treatments to maintain or restore the natural balance of pest and predator.”

Tomatoes on the vine are harvested.

The number one fungal disease weapon is maintaining proper climate control, but fungicides are used when necessary. “For viral and bacterial diseases, we really have only one weapon and that’s hygiene,” Aldenzee said. “As we are a hydroponic facility, our soil is covered with a ground cloth, and we never use herbicides.”

“All the pollination needed to produce tomatoes is provided by specially reared bumblebees native to Arizona,” Aldenzee said.

Primary challenges to growing the tomatoes are the summer heat and the humidity that come with the summer monsoon. “We try to time our crops so we have younger crops going through the difficult season. We adjust our plant maintenance strategies to maintain less fruit and less leaves on each plant during those times,” Aldenzee said.

Harvesting and marketing

Within the produce industry, labor continues to be a major issue affecting growers. While the cost of labor continues to escalate, labor availability is often the immediate concern for growers whose crops have to be picked. While hand labor is required in greenhouse production, the year-round employment is appealing. With full-time, year-round jobs available, the labor supply is readily available in southern Arizona.

Vines for the tomatoes on the vine are cut by hand with pruning shears; the other tomatoes and cucumbers are picked by hand. After harvesting, the produce is graded for quality, packaged and weight-checked in various packaging configurations to meet customer needs. “We have about 150 different packaging SKUs,” Aldenzee said. “We like to store the product as little as possible to get it to the customer as fresh as possible.”

Aldenzee said, “We have a lot of standard operating procedures on how to grow and irrigate, all based on historical data and experience. The vines prevent the tomatoes from drying out postharvest and thus enhance shelf life.”

Continued expansion

EuroFresh has expanded its greenhouse production facilities in Arizona and continues to focus on new technologies, incorporating knowledge gained in past production. A $3.2 million expansion in 2010 enlarged the growing capacity and increased production at Snowflake.

“Markets are changing, and we’re trying to grow what our customers want us to grow,” Aldenzee said. “We have increased our focus on food safety, and we want to be the industry leader to ensure the best possible quality for consumers.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.