Beth Hubbard, manager at Corey Lake Orchards in Three Rivers, standing beside tall greenhouse tomato plants. Courtesy Corey Lake Orchards
Tomato lovers know Michigan tomatoes are ripe from July through October, but some also know there are greenhouse-grown tomatoes ready year round in the Mitten State.
Now, thanks to Mastronardi Produce’s state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse in Coldwater, fresh, vine ripened Michigan-grown tomatoes are available any time of the year at Meijer stores.
The technology at the Coldwater greenhouse allows for fresh, high quality fruit regardless of outdoor conditions. The Coldwater greenhouse is the first of its kind in the Midwest, utilizing unique grow lights, water filtration systems and alternative energy sources that create an internal climate that ensures optimal growing conditions 12 months a year, according to Meijer.
“We’re proud to give Meijer customers what they’d been missing: fresh, vine-ripened Michigan-grown tomatoes in the winter,” Mastronardi Produce President Paul Mastronardi said. “Meijer is one of our oldest customers in the USA and has been a great partner for over 40 years. We have collaborated on many new items and projects like this. We talked a few years back about our idea of the Coldwater greenhouse project and Meijer was on board before we built.”
“Meijer has a longstanding commitment to buying locally-grown produce when available as long as the quality meets our high standards,” said Jerry Suter, a vice president at Meijer, which has its headquarters in Walker.
At Corey Lake Orchards near Three Rivers, tomatoes have been ready to eat in May for about the last 15 or 20 years, according to Beth Hubbard, daughter of the farm founder and owner Dayton Hubbard.
Their tomatoes are grown the old fashioned way — in dirt — which the Hubbards maintain gives their Biltmore and Rocky Top varieties “that great tomato flavor that everyone just craves.”
The seeds are started in a Kalamazoo greenhouse to save the cost of heating their greenhouse those extra weeks at the start.
This month, with the wind and snow whipping by outside, a small crew was at work in the balmy Corey Lake Orchards greenhouse transplanting 912 seedling tomato plants into pot-bags. The plants are trained to grow straight up, some eventually to a height of 10 to 12 feet or more.
The Hubbards sell their greenhouse crop direct to consumers through their farm stand.
“We have such a following, because we’ve been doing this 15 or 20 years," said Beth Hubbard. "Starting in May, our phone rings off the hook from people wanting to know if our real tomatoes are ready yet."
“By May, we’ll be giving someone their first BLT,” she said.
Meijer has purchased produce from local growers since the company’s inception, but the retailer’s effort to buy local has expanded over the past five years as the focus on local became more important to customers.
Meijer is currently the largest purchaser of local produce in the markets it serves and locally-grown produce accounts for 30 percent of all produce sold at Meijer stores during the peak season.
A recent survey of Meijer shoppers found that 51 percent said that supporting local farmers is the biggest benefit of buying local produce at the grocery store. Nationally, 48 percent of shoppers report looking for locally-sourced products when shopping, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends Report.
Meijer works with more than 100 local growers and businesses — up 25 percent over the past five years — within its five-state footprint, representing an economic impact of more than $80 million annually.
By purchasing local, Meijer is able to cut fuel consumption, which is not only good for the environment, but also helps reduce transportation costs and keeps fresh produce prices lower for customers.
Meijer began purchasing tomatoes from Mastronardi Produce, which is based in Ontario, Canada, more than 40 years ago and was excited about the unique opportunity to give customers Michigan-grown tomatoes in the winter. The Markets of Meijer tomatoes on the vine grown in the Coldwater greenhouse have a sticker on the packaging that states “Grown in Michigan.”
The Coldwater facility was completed in December 2011 and features 30 acres of greenhouses. Mastronardi plans to double the acreage over the next two years — providing more locally-grown produce for customers.
Ontario greenhouses have been growing a large amount of tomatoes in the winter months, in dirt, for at least 40 years.
“They’re pretty amazing in Canada,” said Hubbard.
Meijer operates 199 supercenters and grocery stores throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.