Thriving Under Cover

One of our state’s industries is thriving by going under cover. Colorado has the largest acreage of greenhouse-grown vegetables in the United States. And annual sales top $170 million for all greenhouse-grown products in the state.

Steve Newman, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension greenhouse Crops specialist, expects strong growth to continue. "Colorado’s greenhouse industry still is very young and has great potential, especially in vegetable production," he said. Newman keeps close track of greenhouse production. He regularly visits growers, responds to their requests for help, and also answers their questions by telephone and e-mail. Colorado’s greenhouse industry is composed of growers throughout the state, although about 70 percent of growers are located in Weld, Morgan, Arapahoe, Adams, Denver, Jefferson and Boulder counties. Other counties with significant greenhouse production include Douglas, El Paso, Fremont, Garfield, Larimer, Mesa and Pueblo.

While it’s young, Colorado’s greenhouse industry isn’t totally new. As far back as the early 1900s, growers cultivated carnations in greenhouses. That flower-growing business thrived in the 1960s, when the source for most carnations shifted to South America. Colorado’s flower-growing efforts now focus on roses and specialty plants such as poinsettias.

Newman noted that the most recent — and dramatic — impact on the state’s greenhouse production has come in the form of vegetables — especially tomatoes. "They are changing the appearance of the greenhouse industry in Colorado," he said.

More than 100 acres of tomatoes are grown in Colorado greenhouses, which ranks the state first in the nation. One company, Colorado Greenhouse Holdings LLC, accounts for about 90 percent of that production, Newman said. The company works with growers in Brush, Fort Lupton and Rifle, and also has operations in New Mexico and Baja, California.

"Colorado Greenhouse produces up to 1 million pounds of tomatoes during their peak season and averages about 500,000 pounds per week year-round," Newman said. "In addition, Colorado Greenhouse has made high-quality, hydroponic tomatoes a mainstream commodity in grocery store produce departments statewide, an accomplishment that also benefits Colorado’s smaller greenhouse operations. For example, SunBlest Farms, Peyton, Colorado, has just completed building a new 16 acre site for greenhouse tomatoes. Their first tomato harvest hit the grocery stores in early April."

Newman pointed out that smaller growers compete successfully by providing fresh produce and high quality service, selling through a variety of outlets including farmer’s markets, developing new markets such as upscale restaurants and offering alternative Crops such as fresh-market herbs. Newman describes fresh herbs as "virtually an untapped market."

Mountain Valley Development Center in Glenwood Springs, Osage Farms in nearby Newcastle and Bellwether Farms in Fort Collins are three greenhouses that have taken the fresh-herbs plunge. Mountain Valley employs disabled individuals in a number of enterprises, including the production of a variety of greenhouse herbs. Osage Farms and Bellwether Farms specialize in growing fresh basil.

In addition to working with both large and small growers to help make them more successful, Newman answers questions from prospective growers looking for an alternative lifestyle or to take advantage of an opportunity offered by a relatively new and growing industry.

Newman cautions newcomers about the industry’s demands. "A greenhouse can provide financial and emotional profits, so it’s an attractive business. But it’s also very challenging." Theron Blazzard, owner of Blazzard Greenhouse in LaFayette, can attest to the rewards and challenges. He became interested in greenhouse Crops about 11 years ago, after he retired from the oil and gas business in Denver. Blazzard had grown a variety of Crops in a large Garden on his two-acre property, but he had no experience in greenhouse production.

Blazzard said he read everything he could about greenhouse production when he first got started and asked a lot of questions of the Colorado State Cooperative Extension office in Adams County. He then met Newman when the two of them served on the research committee of the Colorado Greenhouse Growers Association. Blazzard said the assistance he’s gotten from Colorado State Cooperative Extension has been especially helpful to his success as a grower.

Newman’s educational advice for growers focuses on how to cope with plant diseases, assistance with soil and water analysis and pest-control strategies, and updates on production technology. Blazzard and Newman both pointed out that a greenhouse’s high humidity and temperature, combined with lush foliage, make it an ideal environment to grow Insects and diseases along with Crops.

"Keeping Insects and diseases under control is a constant challenge for growers," Blazzard said. "A greenhouse requires management every day. It’s definitely a full-time, hard-work job." Blazzard began his business as a part-time enterprise to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, then continued to expand his greenhouse until it became a year-round commitment. He sells his produce under the Blazzard Greenhouse label through Wild Oats and at farmer’s markets in the Boulder area.

Newman said Colorado State Cooperative Extension continues to expand its services to help Colorado’s greenhouse growers. In partnership with the university’s department of horticulture and landscape architecture and the Colorado Grower’s Association, they offer the annual Rocky Mountain Greenhouse short course for professionals. Specialists provide a monthly on-line newsletter, Mile High Growing for area greenhouse growers, and they are developing a curriculum for training and certifying greenhouse employees, along with a web-based course in greenhouse management.