Business

Growing High-Tech Tomatoes

B.C. Hot House is reaping big profits with new methods and marketing

Jennifer Hunter August 7 2000
Business

Growing High-Tech Tomatoes

B.C. Hot House is reaping big profits with new methods and marketing

Jennifer Hunter August 7 2000

Growing High-Tech Tomatoes

B.C. Hot House is reaping big profits with new methods and marketing

Business

Jennifer Hunter

Andy Smith is unabashed about his job as British Columbia’s No. 1 tomato salesman. Not only does he drive a fiery-red sport utility vehicle, but he drinks tomato juice on the rocks at lunch and has been photographed wearing a bright string of tomatoes on the vine as a substitute for a silk tie. When Smith is invited to a friend’s house for dinner, he eschews the usual flowers or bottle of wine. He arrives, instead, with a box of scarlet peppers, seedless cucumbers, delicate Bibb lettuce and plump tomatoes, all grown by B.C. Hot House Foods Inc., a former farmers’ co-operative that transformed itself into a marketing powerhouse five years ago. “I’ve always loved tomatoes,” says Smith, who became president of the Surreybased B.C. Hot House in 1998. “Now I love them even more.”

So do veggie munchers across North America, particularly Californians, who consume about 30 per cent of what B.C. Hot House produces. The hydroponically grown vegetables are even shipped to Japan and Hong Kong, where B.C. Hot House competes for a slice of Asian markets with growers from Ontario, Arizona, New Jersey and Colorado, as well as the Netherlands and Israel. Last year, the company’s revenue from sales of tomatoes, lettuce,

cucumbers and peppers was $172 million and Smith estimates that this year’s sales will top $270 million. Compare that to 1992—the popularity of greenhouse produce first began to surge in the early 1990s—when the farmer-owned enterprise sold $27 million worth of vegetables. In fact, growth each year since 1995 has been doubledigit. “We believe we are the most successful vendor of these products in North America,” says the 53-year-old Smith. “Not only are we moving into our competitors’ markets, we are selling tomatoes to people who didn’t eat tomatoes before.”

Selling tomatoes to California seems a bit like taking coal to Newcastle, since California is considered a major exporter of the pulpy fruit. (In 1999, Canadians exported $180 million worth of tomatoes to the United States, mainly to Florida and California.) But Smith says that Hot House’s tomatoes are special: they are grown in high-tech greenhouses, without the use of soil and almost no pesticides. They arrive in the grocery stores bright red, juicy and fragrant, unlike the hard and tasteless tomatoes that many consumers are familiar with and often avoid. “These are pampered plants,” says Mark Kürschner, general manager of the B.C. Hot House Growers’ Association, a sister organization that provides horticultural information and support for the farmers. “Some people call our greenhouses the Club Med for plants because you can control the environment and therefore produce the best fruit.”

But not everyone is enamored of the rows and rows of gleaming glass greenhouses that are sprouting in the Lower Mainland area, particularly around the town of Delta. Some residents have

complained that the greenhouses are an eyesore, and others believe the thousands of migratory birds that visit the region will be adversely affected: about 500 acres are covered by the greenhouses, inhibiting the birds’ opportunity to feed and find shelter. Conventional farmers are also worried about the loss of some of the most productive fields in the country.

The greenhouse growers have countered, however, that with another 20,000 acres in the area available to the birds, the environmental impact is minimal. In fact, the company has shown itself to be almost as adept at public relations as it

is at growing vegetables. One of the main reasons for the 27-year-old group’s success is its decision in 1995 to switch from a farmers’ co-operative to an incorporated company. At the same time, the group—now made up of 55 farming operations—decided to “brand” the vegetables with identifiable logos, as if they were any other kind of consumer product such as jeans, computers and televisions. All of its fruit carry edible stickers, made of paper and vegetable-based inks, that show a B and a C in the shape of a tomato and a pepper. They are also aggressive advertisers, using witty television, radio, newspaper and billboard ads to keep their products top of mind.

Smith led a recent tour of an enormous 25-acre greenhouse. The tomatoes grow from woody 10-m-high vines rooted in bricks of sawdust and are fed by huge pipes bringing in both water and nutrients. Everything is controlled by computers, even the opening and closing of skylight windows. “Here, you can control all the inputs into the plants,” explains Smith. “You can maximize the quality of the product, its appearance, size, flavour and sweetness.” The Delta’s temperate climate is ideally suited to greenhouses, Smith adds, giving the B.C. industry a distinct advantage.

The tomatoes are picked by hand when they are ripe. Field tomatoes, by contrast, are gathered while still very hard and green, and then exposed to a process that speeds up ripening, so that the fruit are turning red by the time they finally reach stores. “Field tomatoes are usually picked by machines and they need to be as hard as golf balls to survive the process,” says Kevin Doran, head of marketing and sales at B.C. Hot House. “We can charge a premium price for our tomatoes because the consumer believes they taste and look like tomatoes should.”

But because the tomatoes and other B.C. Hot House vegetables require natural light to grow, cultivating them during the dark, rainy winter months is not yet possible. One B.C. Hot House farmer got around the problem by setting up a greenhouse in California. Smith says he is trying to encourage other B.C. farmers to do the same so that greenhouse-grown produce can be available from November to March. “I’d like to see more of our growers move down there so we could have a supply all year round,” he explains. The goal: to paint towns across Canada and the United States red, with plump tomatoes cultivated in greenhouses owned by B.C. growers. E3