Grower Finds Satisfaction in Large and Small Greenhouses

5/24/2014 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Va. Correspondent

DUBLIN, Va. — Greenhouses are a major part of John Secker’s life. At work, he is the technical director and master grower for Red Sun Farms’ hydroponic and organic greenhouses in Dublin, Va. The company has 18 acres of greenhouses under construction in phase one of a three-phase project.

So what does he do when he gets off work at the end of the day? At home, Secker is a curious grower who wants to raise both vegetables and fish in a newly constructed hoop greenhouse next to his house. He is hoping to make it a sustainable aquaculture system.

Red Sun Farms is an international company registered in Virginia. It is headquartered in Michoacán, Mexico, where its parent company is Agricola El Rosal.

Secker, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, has worked at growing tomatoes for 30 years, he said.

“Not one was the same as the previous year,” he said of the tomato crops.

He has worked in the commercial greenhouse industry growing tomatoes in his native Canada, in Arizona, in Maine and in Texas. A hail storm that destroyed 80 acres of tomato production in Texas in five minutes led to him being laid off and looking for another job. He learned about Red Sun Farm’s plans for its first hydroponic and organic greenhouses for tomatoes in the U.S. and contacted the company. He got the job and moved to Virginia last fall, to a house less than three miles from the greenhouses. The company hopes to begin growing tomatoes by July of this year.

“Hydroponics is growing anything in an inert growing medium and supplying the plant with all nutrients using chemical or organic fertilizers,” Secker said.

Red Sun Farms will have 12 acres of tomatoes grown by the hydroponic method in its greenhouses here and another 6 grown organically.

In his home greenhouse, he will be using the same hydroponic principles to grow his vegetables although he will also be experimenting with aquaculture to see if he can learn something about sustainability.

In his waist-high growing beds in his own hoop house Secker is using granite gravel as his inert medium. He said it is a cheap material. Municipal water is introduced to his fish tank and a sump pump is used to introduce the water into the growing beds. The project is a work in progress; he has only a few plants and no fish currently as he awaits inspection by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which regulates the growing of exotic or non-native fish. As soon as he gets his permit from them, he will begin adding fish to the tank.

He explained that the fish will defecate in the water, which will then be carried into the growing beds, hopefully providing the plants with nutrients they can use.

“It will probably be sustainable,” he said. “I will be producing vegetables but in the process I will be learning what organic fertilizers will not hurt fish.”

He is beginning to get his beds and water system started, saying that he is basically looking for pond scum to grow in the beds.

The sump pump puts water into the fish tank and it in turn flows back into the pump. Then the water is pumped up into the growing beds. Secker uses a bell siphon to maintain the water level in the beds. He expects his system to use only 10 percent of the water that would be needed in an outdoor garden.

“Most of what I’ve learned,” he said, “I’ve learned from YouTube.” He noted that this information is readily available to anyone who wants to learn about it this way.

In his day job, the greenhouse operations are highly technical and most of the techniques were first developed in the Netherlands. The greenhouses are being constructed of steel, aluminum and glass. They will not be heated. One of the reasons for choosing the Dublin location, company officials have said, is the microclimate there which is well-suited to growing tomatoes.

He started working with greenhouse operations when he was a student. Secker was studying computer programming and economics at a university and needed a summer job, he recalled. He knew a person at church who was building greenhouses and said he pestered the man into giving him a job.

“He said I’d be the first one to be called.”

He got the call and in 1984 helped build a “high-tech greenhouse not dissimilar to the one we are building now,” he said.

The summer job proved to be one that led him to a lifetime fascination with greenhouses and growing tomatoes. He liked he environment of the greenhouse and asked the owner if he could work full time.

He couldn’t find the courses he needed at university so he went online to learn about the industry he was joining. He worked his way up and joined another company, this time in charge of growing tomatoes. He changed employers, always wanting to follow the latest technology. He notes that the Vancouver area is a prime location for greenhouses.

Secker said the tomato is really market driven. It’s necessary to provide what the consumer wants. When he started, he said, beefsteak tomatoes were the rage but they have begun to decline in favor and now tomatoes on the vine are taking their place. This special commodity is the type of tomato that Red Sun Farms will be growing in its new facility.

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