Although the US Greenhouse Hydroponic Vegetable Industry is relatively new in North America – most of its growth has been in the last 20 years – it now represents greater than 40% of the US retail market for fresh tomatoes. Village Farms is one of the largest Hydroponic Greenhouse companies in North America. In Texas, they have one research and three production greenhouses (122 acres under glass) near Marfa producing cucumbers and tomatoes. Village Farm’s Texas sales exceed $50,000,000 and they employ approximately 600 employees. This makes them the largest employer in their region of the state. Due to the unique nature and location of their business, educational resources appropriate for their needs have not been readily available. For example, their employees are not able to attend TDA pesticide applicator certification classes that are relevant to their needs. In addition, experts with training and experience in greenhouse production are not available locally.
Although Village Farm’s facilities are 650 miles from Overton, I have worked with them in the past in my role as an Extension Program Specialist-IPM. As an IR-4 State Liaisons, I have supported the greenhouse vegetable industry by supporting their requests for new pesticides registrations on greenhouse grown vegetables. In October I traveled to Village Farm’s facilities in Marfa and Fort Davis. While this trip was initially made to gain a better understanding of their production techniques and needs – it grew into much more. I learned prior to leaving for the trip that Village Farms was having trouble managing whiteflies. They asked if I could provide them with information to help them manage this pest.
Historically greenhouse whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporariorum, has been the main whitefly species Village Farms had faced. In the fall of 2010 their greenhouses were infested with the sweet potato whitefly, Bemisia tabaci, a pest that is much more damaging and difficult to control. The whiteflies that invaded their greenhouses were also carrying Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus. Worldwide this is the most damaging virus to the tomato industry.
After touring their greenhouses I gave a presentation on Bemisia whitefly and its management.
I worked with Village Farms to have USDA determine the biotype of their whiteflies. The whiteflies turned out to be B. tabaci biotype-A. By determining the biotype we were able to determine the source of the infestation. This biotype has not been found in the US or Canada in 20 years. This information ruled out the grower’s Canadian propagators as a source. We now believe that the whiteflies were blown in from Mexico vegetable fields where the whitefly biotype and the virus are known to be present.
In one facility alone Village Farms lost 35% of the tomato plants from the virus. This resulted in lost revenue in excess of $650,000. In a letter sent on January 4, 2011, Village Farm’s stated, “We were headed toward total crop loss, if not for Scott’s interest, knowledge and timely intersession.”
While visiting them I also recognized their challenge in getting CEU’s for their Certified Worker Protection Specialists (WPS). CEU training is a significant hardship for their growers since no horticulture crop programs are presented in their region of the state. I am currently working with the allied industry to provide TDA CEU recertification programs for Village Farms growers.