Meeting the increasing demand for locally grown, fresh tomatoes and reducing carbon emissions go hand in hand for large produce growers. It’s a win-win situation for consumers, who get a fresher, tastier product — for growers, who can reduce shipping and energy costs — and ultimately, the environment.
Houweling’s Tomatoes is meeting the demand for fresh tomatoes and pushing the envelope to be as sustainable and friendly to the environment as possible.
“Houweling Group’s business and farming operations has woven sustainability and innovation into the company fabric,” says Lindsay Martinez, brand manager for the Houweling Group. “Consumers want more locally grown produce, which is why we display the CA Grown, BC Grown or Utah Grown license plate graphic, letting shoppers know exactly where our products are grown.”
The family-owned business was started in 1956 in Langley, British Columbia by Dutch horticulturist Cornelius Houweling. At that time, it was a small floral greenhouse and berry farm on a few acres. In 1976, his son Casey joined the business and started an expansion plan that would introduce tomatoes to the mix and eventually establish the company as one of the premier producers of tomatoes on the vine.
The company now has three locations — Camarillo, Calif., Mona, Utah and Delta, British Columbia — consisting of 125 acres under greenhouse glass. It uses hydroponic methods to grow tomatoes on the vine, roma, grape, cocktail, cherry and heirloom tomatoes that it sells to premium retailers and club stores. One of its greatest successes, according to Martinez, has been the development of its Sweetoms premium grape tomato. She says consumers are taking notice, ramping up the demand from retailers and subsequently keeping them stocked in their produce sections. All of its seed stock comes from non-GMO seed sources.
Cashing in on snacking varieties
The market for snacking continues to grow and Houweling’s has taken notice. It now offers “ultra-premium” snacking varieties to customers under the Signature Selection label. The branding and label ensures the consistency of the product.
“The value is driven by a consistent, superior flavor profile, Martinez says. “The variety is declared on the pack so that consumers know that they will receive the same premium eating experience time and again. This consistent high-quality consumer experience creates repeat purchases.”
Houweling’s Signature Medley Tomatoes are a good example of this brand of snacking tomatoes. Also used in salads, Signature Medley tomatoes are firm-textured ‘maters with a sweet taste and variable colors. The company says Medley Tomatoes offer the longest shelf life of any of their tomatoes.
The marketing is more than in the taste buds, although it’s essential to sell tasty tomatoes. It’s also in the message.
“We focus on the benefits of greenhouse-grown and locally grown, with an emphasis on flavor at the forefront of the products we grow,” Martinez says. “We also tout the leadership in innovation, experience and sustainability that Houweling’s brings as a grower.”
Martinez says the biggest marketing challenge is the differentiation of the premium varieties. “At face value, it would seem easy as you can taste the difference, but in the context of the retail environment, the consumer is challenged to tell the difference on-shelf.”
Its most popular tomato is the large tomato on the vine, which can be used to make sandwiches, salsas, sauces and salads.
Growing tomatoes, growing plants
Houweling’s not only produces tomatoes for consumption — a seed to harvest operation — but is also a specialized, grafted seedling propagator, grafting tomatoes to combine the attributes of two different plants. It grafts plants and sells the seedlings to growers from its propagation facility in Delta.
“We are a specialized, grafted seedling propagator in addition to a greenhouse grower and marketer of greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and herbs,” Martinez says.
Sustainability: smart for business, the environment
Greenhouse farming alone reduces emissions by being able to produce a crop of tomatoes more efficiently. Martinez says greenhouse production produces 24 times the amount as traditional farming in the field. Also, greenhouse production results in 1/6 the water usage as does field grown production.
Houweling’s is taking sustainability one step further by leveraging every technology and renewable resource available.
For example, in its Utah facility, it is capturing previously wasted heat and CO2 from an adjacent power plant and using it to promote plant growth. Throughout the operation, it has installed energy-efficient technologies, including energy-efficient grow lights, variable speed fan motors and motion sensors to activate and deactivate overhead lighting.
The company grows its tomatoes in recently erected Ultra-Clima Greenhouses it says help to optimize conditions that allow crops to flourish (the right temperatures, humidity, light and carbon dioxide levels). Herbicides are never used in the greenhouse and pesticide use is a last resort.
And of course, growing for local markets drastically reduces emissions that would be spewed into the environment if the product had to be shipped hundreds of miles.
Investing in the future
A business that stands still often loses market share and Houweling’s appears to be aware of that. It's throwing its money into its Utah-based operation with plans on doubling it in size by 2018 and continuing with its patented heat and CO2 recovery project, which captures waste exhaust from an adjacent natural power plant. It will also be transitioning much of its specialty packaging to top seal resealable packaging, according to Martinez.
Competition is good for the industry
Competition in the industry is not always the bogeyman it’s portrayed to be. “Competition in the produce business is complicated and ever changing,” Martinez says. “Depending on market conditions with shortages and overproduction, our competitors may not always be competition, they can also be partners or customers.”
Competition may also result in a cheaper, tastier tomato — which is good news for us tomato lovers!