MightyVine, the Rochelle-based hydroponic grower of tomatoes, plans to double the size of its operation once again to help meet increasing demand from large retailers like Costco, Walmart and Jewel-Osco, according to company executives.
Come September, construction will begin on two more 7.5-acre greenhouses in Rochelle, located about 80 miles west of Chicago, said MightyVine Chairman Jim Murphy. Once the $16 million project is complete, MightyVine will have four adjacent greenhouses totaling 30 acres that will produce about 105 million tomatoes a year, Murphy said. That represents the second major expansion for MightyVine since launching in 2015 to offer fresh, locally grown tomatoes year-round in the Chicago area.
The agricultural startup has experienced some growing pains, too. In the summer’s hottest weeks, the greenhouses can get too hot, making it difficult to maintain the same size and quality of fruit, Murphy said.
Quantity has been the far greater challenge, though.
“We can’t keep up with demand. … It’s hard to keep them in stores, so we have to build more,” Murphy said.
Much of the company’s recent growth has come through large retailers like Costco, Walmart and Jewel. MightyVine is poised to sell through a second Walmart distribution center, which will expand its reach throughout the state, said MightyVine CEO Gary Lazarski. And after a trial run in 10 Costco stores, MightyVine plans to expand to more than 50 stores by the end of the year. In true supersized Costco fashion, MightyVine tomatoes come packaged in a 3-pound box for $6.49.
At Jewel, one of MightyVine’s first retailers after Whole Foods Market, the tomatoes are typically available in all 187 stores — when they’re available, said Scott Bennett, produce sales manager for Jewel-Osco.
Quality is never the problem with MightyVine, which leaves the tomatoes on the vine to ripen longer than most growers, Bennett said. After the tomatoes are harvested, they’re transported to Jewel’s distribution center in Melrose Park within a couple of hours, he said, and are in stores the next day.
“I’ve been doing produce for 35 years, and this is the best darn tomato I’ve ever had,” Bennett said. “They just don’t have enough product. They have enough to keep everyone hooked. It’s a great game they’re playing — we’re all hooked.”
Lazarski acknowledged there’s been tension with retailers as a result of supply shortages but said that ultimately, that’s a good problem to have. MightyVine has grown from being a “speculative venture” to an established brand, Lazarski said.
MightyVine is one of a handful of large-scale indoor commercial farms to enter the Chicago market in recent years. Others have also found a mix of successes and challenges. BrightFarms, a New York-based company that also has a hydroponic greenhouse in Rochelle, sells its leafy greens in Mariano’s stores. Gotham Greens, another New York-based grower of leafy greens, announced earlier this year that it would build a second greenhouse in the Pullman area on Chicago’s Far South Side.
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Photo credit: MightyVine