Tonawanda News


May 27, 2010

Fruits of their labor

WhEATFIELD — While watching an episode of the History Channel’s “Food Tech” series recently, I told my wife that series host Bobby Bognar might have one of the best jobs in the world.

Basically, he gets paid to follow the food production process from apple to zucchini, visiting (and sampling) the products that are made/grown at various factories and farms nationwide.

During one recent visit to Fortistar’s 12.5-acre greenhouse, I got a taste of what Bognar’s job must be like. And I savored every second of it.

The folks at Fortistar — plant manager Gary Gust, assistant general manager Dan Sztorc, senior vice president Thomas Gesicki and head grower Jason Gould — took me on an hour-long tour of the facility. One might not know it based on the simple sign that rests on Shawnee Road, but they have quite the spread behind the treeline.

The 17-year-old greenhouse has experimented with zucchini and several other types of produce over the years, but its focus is on tomatoes and eggplants. Operating under the Fortistar name for nine of those years, the greenhouse yields 2 million pounds of produce per year, mostly gourmet varieties such as baby Roma and grape.

“We can’t compete in the beef steak market,” Gust said. “The key is finding the right niche for yourself and making a quality product.”

In doing so, Gould is essentially given a blank check to make things just right. The plants are hydroponically grown (meaning the nutrients come from water, not dirt) in a bed of Sri Lankan coconut shaving and fed demineralized water mixed with a custom combination of fertilizers. Pests are kept in check by insects that devour the would-be plant eaters, and the facility is heated by the excess heat that comes from Fortistar’s power plant in North Tonawanda.

“We’re small enough to be a local grower and a local player, which is the wave of the future,” Gould said. “The cost of fuel, other costs — it’s not productive to be a big grower anymore.”

Recent months have seen the big growers take a hit due to damaged tomato crops in Florida, which are shipped nationwide. Fortistar’s customers, which include Costco, BJ’s, Sam’s Club, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans, haven’t been taken advantage of, however.

“We don’t really want to gauge the market because people have short memories,” Gesicki said.

“We had contracts, and we held to that because we honor our agreements,” Gust said.

Tomato vines dominate acres of the greenhouse, growing up to 50 feet in length and hanging down from special rigs that were hooked up to the ceiling. None of the plants touch the ground. Instead, pipes that transport hot water zig and zag throughout the building’s floor.

Several of the greenhouse’s 52 employees are charged with maneuvering giant platforms up and down the dozens of plant rows, trimming off unwanted foliage and ensuring the fruit’s quality. Other employees man the warehouse, where the produce is labeled by hand, packaged in recycled materials and sent off to market.

“We do everything by manpower,” Gust said. “When this greenhouse was built, everything was state of the art. Now it’s antiquated.”

Some upgrades have been made, however. Now covered up, an empty canal can be seen adjacent to the rows of fruit that used to carry the produce to the warehouse via the water. Gould maintains a small area off of the warehouse to experiment with new varieties of produce, and computers control the temperature, irrigation and most other functions of the growing process (human attendants are on hand daily, however, and employees are on the job year-round).

As for the final product?

“Just taste one,” Gust said of the tomatoes. “There’s no comparison.”

Wegmans customers agree, according to Kevin Komendat, the grocer’s Buffalo-area produce coordinator.

“At this point, we don’t get enough,” he said. “We sell out between deliveries.”

Komendat cited the greenhouse’s practices for making a cleaner, more reliable product.

“It doesn’t have the inconsistencies that outdoor products tend to have,” he said. “It’s actually a phenomenal product.”

Indeed, the fresh-off-the vine sample I tried was good. But even better was getting a glimpse of something special going on in our own backyard. Tasting the final product was one thing, but getting to witness, however briefly, the process by which it’s made was a lot of fun.

So if Bognar’s job never opens up, I at least got to be him for a day.

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