Have you considered growing greenhouse vegetables for a high-end clientele?

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Serge Boon, founder of Boon Greenhouse Consultancy, said growers who are interested in selling to a high-end clientele, including resorts, restaurants and individuals, need to be able to offer exceptional quality produce. Photos courtesy of Brush Creek Ranch

An increasing number of upscale resorts, restaurants and affluent individuals have begun operating their own greenhouses to produce the fruits and vegetables they want to prepare and consume.

While many restaurants across the country lost sales or went out of business during the COVID-19 pandemic, some had no problem maintaining their customer base. Serge Boon, founder of Boon Greenhouse Consultancy in Hendersonville, N.C., said he has seen an increase in business for restaurants and resorts that serve a high-end clientele. He has also seen a growing demand from people who want to establish greenhouse programs to produce crops that are not readily available to ensure they have a consistent supply of quality food.

“These include luxury resorts that employ chefs who want specific types of fruits and vegetables,” Boon said. “More of these up-scale resorts are looking to produce their own food so they have more control over what is available and the quality of the food produced. This enables these companies to be less dependent on outside suppliers. Producing their own food enables these companies to offer their guests a more high-end dining experience.”

Boon said the pandemic also didn’t have much effect on his customers who wanted to increase their food security by producing their own crops.

“The grocery stores which were having supply side issues had less food to offer,” he said. “If someone has the opportunity and ability to build their own greenhouse so food can be produced year round that eliminates having to rely on what’s available at the grocery stores. This is an up-and-coming market no matter what happens with the pandemic.”

Up-scale resorts and restaurants are looking to produce their own food providing them with more control over what is available and the quality of the food produced.

Controlling quality, quantity and variety

A major advantage for companies starting to produce their own food is they can control the quality and don’t have to purchase and bring in as much food on a daily basis.

“These companies can tailor the type of produce and quality that they want for their menus,” Boon said. “The chefs provide a lot of input on what is grown in the companies’ greenhouses. This is almost the reverse of how it normally works for many restaurants. Generally chefs have to take what is available from local growers and suppliers. In the case of these high-end restaurants, which operate their own greenhouses, the chefs ask that specific varieties are grown for them.”

Boon, who was a grower for the luxury resort Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming, said most of the companies and individuals he works with put up smaller size greenhouses ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet. The greenhouse at Brush Creek Ranch is a 20,000-square-foot facility that is used year round to grow fresh produce.

“A large percentage of the produce that is grown is for in-house use,” Boon said. “About half of the greenhouse owners I work with operate their own restaurants. In most cases, they are producing for their own restaurants or their own consumption. There is only a handful that sells the produce commercially.

“There are also individuals who can afford to build a greenhouse because they are seeking certain fruits and vegetables that would normally be difficult to source. They want to be self-sustaining by growing their own food on land they have purchased. They hire someone to grow the produce and chefs to prepare their food.”

Boon said some of these affluent individuals want certain crops grown on their property for personal consumption because they may be difficult to source from local growers or suppliers.

“They want fresh, pesticide-free produce year round,” he said. “There are individuals who want specific produce year round like locally-grown heirloom tomatoes that aren’t available so they have to grow them themselves.”

Production requirements

Boon said any food crop can be grown in a greenhouse, it just depends on whether it makes economic sense to produce it. 

“For the companies and individuals I work with, it’s more a case of them wanting specific crops and then building a greenhouse to be able to produce them,” he said. “It’s also important as to whether they want to produce those crops year round. Wanting heirloom tomatoes year round is different than only wanting them during the summer.” 

Some of the crops being grown by resorts, restaurants and individuals in their own greenhouses include specialty broccoli, rainbow carrots, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms, specialty herbs and edible flowers.

Boon designs a succession plan for crops that will be grown year round and seasonally.

“We determine how much needs to be planted each week to be able to deliver a certain yield,” he said. “We predict yields across the year to determine where and when the crops should be planted. We make a specific internal plan in regards to crops, i.e. two rows of tomatoes, two rows of peppers in one zone. In the next zone they may plant strawberries. We walk them through how to set up the production zones and how to run them”.

Boon said he does sometimes get asked to design a greenhouse for a crop that he hasn’t grown.

“I will research the crops to see what the production requirements are for the crops,” he said. “Occasionally I am asked about unfamiliar crops and then I have to research as to the best way for growing a particular crop. Sometimes it doesn’t make economic sense, but if they can afford to grow the crop and the need is there, it can be done.”

Boon said he can also assist with the best cultural practices for producing the crops.

“We can walk them through the whole production plan,” he said. “This varies between clients because if they employ an experienced grower we don’t have to do that. Sometimes it’s from scratch with us helping with crop scheduling and production.”

Greenhouse, production system options

Boon said in most cases he advises his customers to grow in soilless substrates or hydroponically for ease of management.

“We advise them of their options for producing the crops they want to grow and provide them with a list of pros and cons,” he said. “In regards to environmental control, it can be harder to provide the specific climate conditions for each of these specialty crops. The larger the greenhouse the more zones that can be created and the more we can tailor the environment for the crops.

“Because there are multiple crops being grown in some of these smaller greenhouses, there has to be some give and take. There is so much variability between crops that it’s difficult to provide the best growing conditions for every crop. Most of these companies are installing the same type of sophisticated environmental control systems being used in most commercial greenhouse operations. These are literally a smaller version of commercial greenhouses just with a lot more different crops.”

Most of the companies and individuals Serge Boon has worked with have put up greenhouses ranging in size from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet.

Production opportunities for growers

Boon said growers who are interested in selling to this high-end clientele need to be able to offer these resorts, restaurants and individuals exceptional quality produce.

“There is really a need for this type of produce,” he said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to find some of these crops in certain areas. Some examples include specialty broccoli, rainbow carrots, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms, specialty herbs and edible flowers.

“Growers interested in serving this clientele definitely have to know their market. They have to know the up-scale customer base that is near them, including sportsmen’s clubs, resorts and restaurants. The growers need to determine these potential customers’ needs in regards to specialty produce. Growers need to first do their market research before they start building a greenhouse.”

Boon said this up-scale clientele is an up-and-coming market.

“These are people who want to have greenhouses in their backyards so they always have fresh produce available rather than being dependent on growers and suppliers from outside the U.S.,” he said. “I’m not a believer in shipping fresh produce around the world. Right now this up-scale market is for those people who can afford to grown their own produce. Over time I’m hoping that more people will get involved with growing their own food.”

For more: Boon Greenhouse Consultancy, serge@boongreenhouse.com

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

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