BUFFALO, N.Y. (FNS) -- The grand opening this month of Village Farms of Buffalo here marks a success story about taking an abandoned industrial facility that was an eyesore and turning it back into productive land -- in this case, producing vine-ripened tomatoes for retail sale.
The wholly-owned subsidiary of Agro Power Development, East Brunswick, N.J., is a state-of-the-art intensive agricultural greenhouse complex designed to grow true, vine-ripe tomatoes. It has eight other Village Farms in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas. The Buffalo facility, located on the former Republic Steel site, has 18 acres of greenhouse and a 54,450-square-foot packing, mechanical and administrative building.
The entire operation has signed up a number of large retail accounts already, including Tops, Wegmans, H-E-B, Weis Markets and Giant. Another chain, Safeway, ran a test program with the tomatoes, according to an official there. Part of the appeal for retailers, say Village Farms representatives, is the year-round availability of tomatoes, which are locally grown as well.
In particular, the Buffalo Village Farms operation is expected to produce annually 8 million pounds of vine-ripened tomatoes in cluster or on the vine varieties.
The tomatoes are grown hydroponically, meaning that the roots of each plant are placed in a growing medium of fibrous volcanic rock, called "rock wool," which also isolates the plants from any possible remaining contamination. They are fed a rich diet through computer-controlled supplies of water, fertilizer and carbon dioxide, and the climate inside the greenhouse is carefully controlled, too.
Whenever possible, natural methods are used to combat disease and pests, and bumblebees are introduced on a weekly basis to pollinate the tomato plants.
The taste of the tomatoes is "excellent," claimed Donald Aiello, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Village Farms. Tomatoes are probably third in produce sales after bananas and potatoes, but are at the bottom in taste satisfaction "until the greenhouse product came along," he said.
For consumers, "the taste hasn't been there in terms of their memory and experience," he said. But the flavor of the greenhouse-grown tomato has helped to change that perception, despite its higher price tag. "We have some customers where the [greenhouse tomato] category is 60% of all the tomatoes they sell," Aiello said.
Pricing of the Village Farms tomatoes is competitive, Aiello continued. "We pride ourselves in being able to deliver a high-quality fruit 12 months a year [between its northern and southern facilities]. If it's not good quality, we won't pack it."
VIPs on hand for the grand opening ceremonies and a tour of the brownfield development project included New York Governor George Pataki, Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello, and Charles Gargano, who is chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation. There they saw the results of efforts, in which Vice President Al Gore has been instrumental, to influence initiatives that remove legal barriers to redevelopment and that offer targeted tax incentives to businesses that purchase and clean up brownfield sites, such as the one in Buffalo.
This is the first major venture in Buffalo's brownfield redevelopment effort. Construction of the $14.5 million agricultural facility started in mid 1997, and it actually opened around the end of 1997 when Village Farms first began planting the seedlings, according to Aiello.