In The Trenches: High-tech hydroponics could revolutionize retail produce merchandising

Imagine entering a supermarket produce department and seeing a colossal glass enclosed structure with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce growing in a liquid solution.

The produce manager opens the side doors on the unit, picks some tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce and places them on display. A customer approaches the display, selects a few of the items and places them in the shopping cart. Now that would be really fresh locally grown produce.Hydroponic-Greenhouse-at-Ohio-Agricultural-Research-Center---Wooster-OH-1A hydroponic greenhouse at the Ohio Agriculture Research Center.

Growing, harvesting and selling right on the sales floor — is this scenario just a fantasy or is it a glimpse into the future of a supermarket agri-department?

In 1987, my wife and I visited the Disney World Epcot Center with our five children and took the Listen to the Land greenhouse tour (now called Living with the Land). We were amazed at all the new agricultural technology in growing plants hydroponically in a futuristic setting. It was impressive.

In a 1997 test, NASA grew Asian bean seedlings aeroponically on the Russian space station, Mir, while the identical seedlings were grown simultaneously on Earth. The seedlings grown at zero gravity on Mir exceeded those grown in normal conditions on Earth. It showed that crops could be grown successfully at zero gravity in outer space.

I recently had the opportunity to speak about produce retailing at the AGROWN AgTech Investing Conference at the Ohio Agricultural Research Center in Wooster, OH. It was designed to bring the world’s leading experts in controlled environmental agriculture vegetable production together with investors seeking to expand their portfolios in commercial scale greenhouse production.Hydroponic-store-displayA hydroponic lettuce display at retail.

Besides presenting an education to attendees about the supermarket retail side of the business, I was likewise educated by all the professionals about the future of sustainable agricultural.

Sue Raftery, chief executive officer of AGROWN in Norwalk, OH, said, “We are focused on three areas. Shorter paths from planning and financing to marketing and production for commercial scale CEA projects — a full turnkey solution. Growing efficiencies, including the integration of renewable fuel sources, responsible use of fresh water to minimize risk and maximize profitability of commercial scale controlled environment agriculture operations. Providing proven work force training for entry-level positions as well as reliable career paths to reduce employee churn and support financial projections.”

Some of the benefits of hydroponic greenhouse production are:

  • The crops grow faster with larger yields, and the product is clean, bright and of very high quality.
  • Pesticides are not necessary.
  • Less land is required with the use of vertical stacking levels.
  • Greenhouses protect crops from harsh weather damage.
  • Less water is required.
  • Reduced farm chore labor.
  • Operating functions are automated by technology.

So, where is hydroponic farming headed in the future?

“We believe the largest untapped market for commercial scale growing is in the U.S. and North America,” Raftery said. “Given that food security is a national security, helping grow the controlled environment growing sector in the U.S. (predicted to be a $1.75 trillion opportunity) creates jobs, economic multipliers and provides the consumers with what they want — local/regional fresh, safe food grown close to home and breaking down the long food system supply chains. This is important to the retailer in reducing shrink and meeting their customer demand for food grown locally.”

Access to local hydroponic greenhouses will be advantageous for retailers. It will mean locally grown fresh produce can be delivered faster with added shelf life to the product. Also, it will give retailers a 52-week program, especially in cold climate areas. The close proximity will also reduce shrink.

Jeff Tomassetti, director of produce and floral for Buehler’s Supermarkets in Wooster, OH, said, “We have picked up two new local hydroponic lettuces. One is from Buckeye Fresh in Medina, Ohio, which supplies us with spring mix, spinach, arugula and basil, and is doing extremely well for us. The product has extended shelf life. Currently, we are selling more than they are able to supply as a result of the customer response to the product. We are expecting this to become a very strong new partnership. I love supporting the local farmers and seeing them succeed.”

The advanced growth of the hydroponic program could open the door to another merchandising venture in supermarket produce departments. It could become another exceptional signature section similar to packaged salads, berries, fresh-cut fruit, mushrooms and other dynamic categories.

I could visualize a large colorful sign above the subsection that reads, Locally Grown Hydroponic Produce, which would captivate shoppers who seek the freshness of produce from nearby farms on a year-round basis.

This is a changing produce business and we must keep pace with it. If we can be successful in growing hydroponic produce in space, we certainly can be successful in merchandising it on Earth. 

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