Jim: Good Morning, I’m Jim Murphy, President of Grow Forward. We’re here today to talk with another innovator, business-leader, person in the Chicago community that brings something special to us: Gary Lazarski of MightyVine. We’re very excited to have you here and tell us a little bit about growing up, where you are from, and how you got into the start of this world.
Gary: Sure, I grew up in Mount Prospect, a northwest suburb, I’ve been in Chicago for most of my life. I had a brief detour in Michigan as part of my tour to the Big 10 for undergraduate and law school and then ended up back here in the securities trading market for a while. A little over a decade ago I met up with some local industry leaders in various areas and started a couple of companies and that has lead overtime to my being CEO of MightyVine, a hydroponic tomato farm out in Rochelle, just west of the city.
Jim: Talk to us a little bit about how MightyVine works. Maybe some of our viewers don’t understand the basic difference between hydroponic and growing in soil and greenhouse vs. organic, maybe give us a little history or lesson in that.
Gary: Sure, well I think that the place to start is the tomatoes we’ve eaten for the last several decades in Chicago area, you know you’ve worked in the Loop I know for a lot of your career and you go out to lunch at places and the tomatoes that you are routinely served in any salad or on any sandwich just have no flavor. So we started at MightyVine by asking ourselves: ‘What could we do to change that?’. And, it turns out the reason that they taste terrible is for very good economic reasons. The entire tomato growing and produce growing industry was predicated upon the fact that you grow it where it’s nice and sunny, gasoline is cheap in the United States, we’re very lucky, so you grow it in California or maybe even Mexico or further away and ship it across the United States to wherever it’s consumed, and there you have what looks like a tomato but doesn’t taste anything like a tomato. So by growing hydroponically, what we are able to do at MightyVine is bring the flavor back to locally grown tomatoes in Chicago. We’re focused on the Chicago market, there are people who do this in various places, we felt that Chicago was very underserved when it came to top quality produce. We choose the tomato partly because tomatoes just don’t travel well. You can’t grow a very flavorful tomato except close to home. So, our greenhouse is located just outside of Chicago, well known to be a great restaurant community and we’ve been very pleased with the way restaurants have responded to our high-quality, high-flavor tomato that is available year round.
Jim: What size of a greenhouse do you have? My grandfather and grandmother had a greenhouse when I was growing up in their backyard. I remember it very well, what size is yours?
Gary: Yeah, Most of us have memories of going out on Mother’s Day, maybe at the last minute, to buy our mothers flowers or maybe a prom corsage or something of that nature, that’s a different kind of greenhouse entirely. This is 15-acres, so approximately 15 football fields under glass, 30 ft ceilings at the peak, bumble bees to pollinate, it’s a very high-tech, state of the art greenhouse that comes to us from the Netherlands where they really have developed this technology. So we are fortunate enough to have partnered with some Dutch growers and they were able to bring their technology and know-how right here to the Midwest and help us produce great tasting tomatoes for Chicago.
Jim: How many local people do you employ and how do they like the work?
Gary: So that is a huge part of our story, I think. We currently employ close to 70 people on our 15-acres, all people who live and work in the Rochelle area, which at one time was an agricultural, commercial, and rail hub. Like many towns of its kind in the upper Midwest, it’s gone on hard times for the last few decades. And we were able to bring next-generation agricultural production back to a plot of land that previously had all the topsoil stripped for development, so they were going to put a warehouse there, but those plans fell through with the economic crisis in 2007-2008. We were able to repurpose that land for agriculture again and by using our hydroponic system to grow tomatoes. So it’s a great story for the community and we find the consumers take to that story because it allows for them to connect to an agriculture concern right in their own community.
Jim: What are the big things in the marketplace today as the concept of sustainability? People are very interested in that and it’s important to them, how is it that MightyVine embraces that, what are the few of the technology points that MightyVine uses or has in the systems that incorporate sustainability as a concept?
Gary: Sustainability is definitely not just a buzzword for us at MightyVine, it’s something that we take very seriously both from a business perspective and as being good community stewards. We use 10% of the water at MightyVine that would’ve used if we were a field-grown tomato. So for instance, you are familiar probably with conventionally grown tomatoes, you apply a lot of water and fertilizer, you apply a lot of pesticides, many of those negative elements drain down into the water cable and create problems within our communities. At Mighty Vine, our hydroponic technology allows us to capture all the rainwater and snowmelt off the roof, re-circulate that into the greenhouse. Everything is applied directly to the roots. So not only are we using 10% of the water of the field-grown tomatoes, none of the water in the greenhouse is filtered down in the water cable. None of the nutrients we use, none of the fertilizers, are getting into the surrounding water cable. So, it’s a great sustainable way to produce local produce with high flavor.
Jim: Do you have to wash your tomatoes a lot before they go to the store?
Gary: We don’t, we don’t wash our tomatoes. They are not handled as much as typical tomatoes that you get from a conventional grown farm. We’ve all seen food safety warnings about food grown from Mexico or lower California and recalls, things of that nature. Because of the cleanliness of the Dutch process that we use, our tomatoes, from a food safety perspective, are really fantastic. In addition to that, we work with a lot of retailers who demand extensive food safety standards to be in place. So, we submit ourselves twice a year to a third-party food safety audit to make sure everything from the way we handle our nutrients to the way we grow our tomatoes to the way they are picked, packed, and shipped, is all meeting the top food safety standards.
Jim: One of the benchmarks of Grow Forward is the concept of food and nutrition. What have you learned over the last few years about your tomatoes and nutrition compared to the others in the marketplace?
Gary: Well what we are able to do at MightyVines is leave our tomatoes on the vines for a little longer. Getting a tomato that is going a great distance, it’s going to be picked when it’s green and hard and in those last few days or even weeks on the vine, instead of traveling in a train somewhere where it’s not developing any of its nutrients or flavor profiles, the MightyVine tomato is still happily snug to the vine being tended by the bees and the various other natural biological needs that we have in the greenhouse and developing all of the nutrients and flavors that we know from tomatoes in our backyards of our grandparents growing up. So the nutrient profile and the flavor profile, the sweetness, everything is enhanced when we’re able to leave the tomato on the vine and by virtue of our proximity to the Chicago market, we are able to do that.
Jim: Talk to me about how the food service community in Chicago has embraced your product.
Gary: Yeah, we’ve been very pleased with the way the food service and the restaurant community and the retailers have embraced our product. Chicago is well known to be a fantastic restaurant town. A lot of James Beard, the most recent James Beard award winner, Rick Bayless, for his groundbreaking restaurant with introducing Mexican food, a broad array of style of Mexican food, to the United States. So, the restaurant community has been overwhelming in their response. Even the restaurants that are a part of the local food movement, where they really only want to cook what is in season, typically would make an exception because it’s such a strong consumer demand for tomatoes. They would have a tomato on in the winter even if it wasn’t locally sourced, and they did it somewhat regretfully. What we have been able to do is give them the ability to put on their tables a tomato that meets their standards year round. So, we’ve been really gratified by the fact that we got into business looking to solve a problem: why tomatoes taste so bad in Chicago, but you never really know until you put it out there whether the public is going to agree with you, and we’ve been very happy to see that the restaurant community has embraced the tomato, our tomato, put it on their menus and done some very creative things with it, even in the depths of winter. So, it has been great!
Jim: Produce market in Chicago is a pretty large, substantial marketplace, there is a lot of different products there. A lot of our retailers are used to going to the produce market and buying the product there. How does MightyVine handle that? How do the relationships with the retailer differ from the ones that just go to the produce market and buy what’s on sale?
Gary: That’s definitely something that has been part of our learning curve at MightyVine. The commodity tomato market in Chicago is very strong, it’s a regional hub for produce trading. Some of that is quality produce, but a lot of it, particularly tomatoes, is stuff that is just there because it’s available and it’s cheap but it doesn’t have the high flavor that we are expecting that we need in a tomato. So we tried to stay out of the commodity market and build our brand and work with restaurants and retailers to communicate to our buying public that a locally grown, high flavor tomato is worth paying a little more for. So, some of our retailers will find that they can walk through Chicago International Produce Terminal and find tomatoes for very cheap certain times of year. But time and again they come back to us with the same orders week after week because in the grocery store the consumers voting with their pocket book and they are saying: ‘I’d rather pay $1.99 or $2.49 a pound for tomato that taste great then $0.99 a pound for something that doesn’t even approximate for what a tomato is supposed to taste like.
Jim: What are some of the more interesting, new technology you’re seeing coming out of the Netherlands?
Gary: Yeah, what we talked about with the hydroponics, the Netherlands really is the necessity is the mother of invention. The Netherlands for centuries has been very inventive given they are below sea level in a lot of their geography. They have been very entrepreneurial in coming up with ways to grow flowers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants. What we are seeing coming out of the Netherlands now, that a lot of people are interested in microgreens, using LED lighting to be even more sustainable than we currently are, new ways of treating the glass that we use in the 9 to more effectively spread out the solar radiation that hits the greenhouse. All of it is geared to giving the growers, and these growers are just master craftsmen with generations in their family of growing, a greater ability to control the environment and produce ultimately the best tasting tomato, produce, or whatever you are growing.
Jim: You’ve put a couple bottles of juice here on the table, what is this all about?
Gary: That’s right, so this is a local company, Here Foods LLC, their Here Juice line is available at a number of local retailers and what they are doing is something that we strongly support. They are taking midwest produce, cold pressing it into some really high quality juices. This particular one has tomato, that’s why it is here. Mighty Vine tomatoes, cucumber, various other things, and a little bit of cayenne, I find it to be just a great morning juice. We are really happy to partner with local folks who are doing innovative things like this. A lot of the juices, again the produce is coming from you don’t really know where. Not only do we appreciate people like Here Juice, for using local produce because it’s good for the community, but we’ve seen time and time again that the consumer likes the connection with community. So you know everything in this bottle, including the Mighty Vine tomatoes, was grown from a place that you can drive to and see with your kids or your family on the weekend.
Jim: What are MightyVines future plans? Are you going to grow more tomatoes, grow other things? What do you think?
Gary: You know, it has only been a year and a half since we picked our first tomato. In industry terms, we are relatively young. Right now what we are looking to do is service and grow our existing accounts, make sure we maintain a quality. We’ve expanded from 7.5-acres our first year to 15-acres in the past year. So for 2017 we are going to continue to try to perfect our ability to grow, pack, ship the best-tasting tomato in the market and as far as what the future holds, I think we’ll let the market dictate that. Consumers have voted, as I said, with their pocketbook for Mighty Vine tomatoes and if there are other things that retailers are telling us we can do hydroponically, grown nearby for the supermarkets and the restaurants, then we will take a hard look at all of that and develop our expertise.
Jim: Great, it was great chatting with you and getting caught up on MightyVine. Have I missed any points or forgotten anything?
Gary: You know, the tomatoes are available at Local Foods, which is the beautiful setting where you are conducting the interview, and a lot of other local retailers. I think we haven’t missed anything, I would just encourage anybody who likes MightyVines or who sees us out in the market to reach out to us on the internet and let us know how we are doing, what we could do better, and if there are any other produce items that you really think we should be growing.
Gary: Thanks, Jim.
A Fresh Approach to Fresh Produce
Gary Lazarski of MightyVine Tomatoes drops by Local Foods to talk about sustainability, the importance of nutrition, and growing hydroponic tomatoes.
Gary explains that industry success is predicated on growing crops in sunny, temperate places and relying on cheap gasoline costs in America to offset the costs of transporting produce across the country to restaurants and grocery stores. Tomatoes in particular don’t ship well though. So this current system sacrifices flavor as well as the troubling environmental impact of the fossil fuels used to transport the produce long distances. Mighty Vine has found a solution that’s wowed consumers and industry professionals alike. Watch the interview to learn more about MightyVine’s mission.
Gary Lazarski and the MightyVine Community
Gary Lazarski, MightyVine CEO, discusses how the local company has helped rejuvenate the economy of Rochelle, Illinois. This is something that helps the products further resonate with community members and consumers at large.
Gary Lazarski – Sustainability
At MightyVine, sustainability is just as important for business reasons as it is environmental reasons. For example, MightyVine’s production uses 10% of the water needed to produce their field grown counterparts. Furthermore, none of the water filters down into the water table – another important way they’re helping protect the local environment.
Sustainable Farming & Hydroponic Tomatoes
How much do you know about hydroponic farming techniques? In this video segment, MightyVine CEO Gary Lazarski discusses hydroponic farming techniques, and how it’s better for the environment as well as the flavor.
Gary Lazarski – The Importance of Nutrition
Jim and Gary discuss the value of locally grown food, and how it helps increase nutritional value. For example, locally grown tomatoes can be left on the vine much longer, allowing for better produce development.