One grower's $17 million quest for a greener tomato

More than 15 years ago, Casey Houweling ventured from his native Canada to start raising his tomatoes in the Southern California sunshine. From Romas to grape tomatoes and tomatoes on the vine, Houweling’s Tomatoes grows a wide range of GMO-free varieties at its outpost in Camarillo, Calif. in addition to its original facility in British Columbia, Canada.

It’s a massive operation. Each year, rows and rows of plants inside the company’s glass-enclosed greenhouses produce over 108 million pounds. Growing the tomatoes hydroponically -- without the use of soil -- enables Houweling to use less water, yield more on less land and save money. He has also outfitted his greenhouses with solar panels, reuses water and recycles or composts the majority of the company's waste.

Over the last three years, Houweling has aimed to boost productivity even more -- and reduce his environmental impact further -- by making a major investment.

He recently unveiled the fruits of that investment: a new 125-acre greenhouse powered by two high-efficient, two-stage turbocharged gas-powered GE Jenbacher J624 engines. The combined heat and power (CHP) system can produce 8.7 megawatts of electrical power -- enough to run about 8,800 homes -- and goes beyond capturing and reusing heat, as traditional cogeneration systems do.

It also captures CO2 which can then be pumped in to the greenhouse as a fertilizer, as well as water that can be used in facility operations.

As the first commercial CHP greenhouse in the U.S., it’s arguably poised to become the most efficient in the country, and is expected to increase tomato production by 20 percent.

The system makes use of excess low grade heat and water released during production which would normally be wasted, according to GE spokesperson Scott Nolen. And since all of its power output won't be needed 24 hours a day, Houweling plans to sell the excess power back to the grid.

“From a common sense perspective it seemed like a no-brainer,” Houweling said, reflecting back to his mindset when he first took on the project financed by lease and equity from company profits.

Yet by the time the greenhouse is ready for use, he’ll have spent a total of $17 million -- with no idea what his financial return will be.

Photo of Casey Houweling in company greenhouse courtesy of Houweling's Tomatoes

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