Roanoke Business- Sept. 2015

Page 15

‘About as high-tech as it gets’ Red Sun Farms may be agriculture’s future under glass by Mason Adams


egardless whether Red Sun Farms actually represents where farming is headed, it sure feels futuristic. On 12 acres beneath 26 feet of greenhouse glass, tomato plants grow from pipes in tightly regulated rows. Each plant climbs 10 feet or more, using vertical space to maximize the acreage. Across a corridor, six more acres of tomatoes grow from organic soil in narrow planters. The company can cram 10,000 plants into each acre, with about 180,000 tomato plants growing in what is the first phase of development. Looking out at row after row from a wheeled lift 10 feet in the air, John Secker, Red Sun’s master grower and technical director, says, “This is about as high-tech as it gets.” These 18 acres of greenhouse and a related distribution facility represent only the first phase of Red Sun’s plans. During the next few years it will invest $30 million to expand greenhouse operations to cover about 45 acres. It eventually expects to employ more than 200 people. The Dublin plant, announced in 2013, represents two firsts. Red Sun Farms became the first tenant in the New River Valley Commerce Park, a nearly 1,000-acre site in Dublin jointly operated by 13 western Virginia localities. And the NRV Commerce Park became home to Red Sun Farms’ first U.S. facility on the East Coast, joining six additional distribution plants in Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Ontario, Quebec and Michoacán, Mexico, home to the company’s corporate headquarters. In other words, the company maintains a presence in the three North American countries. The parent company is pleased with the progress so far in Dublin, says Jay Abbott, the facility’s general

Photo by Sam Dean

A year-round growing season keeps workers busy harvesting tomatoes at Red Sun’s greenhouse in Dublin.

manager. “We’ve been very happy with our choice of area, both from a climatic standpoint and from employment standpoint,” Abbott says. “To be in an area with no greenhouses, we have found people who show a lot of interest and aptitude in what we’re doing. We’re happy with the industrial community as well. We’re getting involved with other companies to improve the workforce and improve the employment education of the people around here. We’re integrating ourselves into the business and industrial community as a whole.” Last year marked Red Sun Farms’ first year of production. Between its greenhouses and distribution center, it currently employs about 100 people. The company’s hydroponic, or­­­­ ganic products appear in stores from Atlanta to New York City, with some shipments to Canada as well.

The bulk of its product gets sold in Kroger, Food Lion and Harris Teeter stores in four states: Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia. If you’ve bought an organic tomato from a name-brand grocery in Roanoke or the New River Valley in the past year, it probably was grown by Red Sun Farms. “That was a short season, but it was a good one,” says Abbott. “We finished up in late January. We replanted the hydroponic side the 29th and 30th of January, and we replanted the organic side on the fifth and sixth of February.” Harvesting through January and replanting months before the regional frost date? Welcome to the year-round growing season made possible by greenhouse glass and a tightly regulated growing environment and nutrient regimen. This is the reason Red Sun Farms’ tomatoes are flooding reROANOKE BUSINESS


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