NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Timothy Schartner wants to be ahead of the curve with new trends in farming and he is betting that his 25-acre year-round greenhouse will put him there.
“This is the approach for the future, not just for us, but for other farmers as well and we want to make this available to them once we get ours up and running,” said Schartner, a long-time farmer.
He owns Rhode Island Grows and is partner in Schartner Farms, located partially in North Kingstown and also adjoining Exeter, where his greenhouse project is under construction.
He said he has taken a portion of his family’s farmland and put it under his company Rhode Island Grows. On that site he is building a massive glass greenhouse where he’ll grow tomatoes mostly for a wholesale distributor to supermarkets around the tri-state area.
The $57 million facility, according to the state Department of Environmental Management, will take approximately several more months to build, and the initial crops will be ready for harvesting at least four months afterward.
It will feature hydroponics technology with crops irrigated by captured rain water in the solar-powered facility, according to Schartner and the DEM.
Schartner also said that climate controls will make it a year-round facility and provide scores of jobs – upwards of 80 – in staffing and other work needed on the 25-acre site.
It is expected to produce annually about 14 million pounds of organic tomatoes, said Schartner, to the supermarkets in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
He added that these include Stop & Shop and Whole Foods. Representatives of those companies could not be immediately reached for comment about participating in this project billed as the largest indoor tomato farming facility in the Northeast, according to the DEM.
New England produces only 10 percent of its own food, with Rhode Island operations delivering less than 2 percent of the state’s supply, according to an ecoRI News interview with Ken Ayers, DEM agriculture division chief.
The deficiency creates a collective interest in increasing the amount of locally produced food, while the coronavirus pandemic exposed the difficulties of a stretched supply chain, he said.
Schartner, though, sees more than just a benefit to himself and his company. He’s a fourth-generation farmer who wants to keep a business and way of life — ingrained in him — alive as long as possible in a challenging business world as well as changing environmental conditions for farming.
“I think this can help farmers stay in business if they start thinking of this modern approach with year-round greenhouses on their land,” he said, noting that the risk of them is the “barrier to entry.”
In economic terms, it means the costs for entering a new market – and the risks of failure with it – that prohibit others from making the investment.
“Yes, they would need to invest in the upfront costs, either by doing it on their land or, as our expands, on land we provide,” Schartner said, but didn’t have scaled down estimates from his $57 million that would apply to the small farmer.
The 25-acre trial in this approach includes eventually an expansion to 350 acres in five years and eventually to 1,000 total acres, according to its website.
The plan, however, comes with some opposition that includes complaints about the size of the project and that controlled environment agriculture (CEA) – new farming technology – to be used is more appropriately located elsewhere, especially where it does not displace fertile agricultural soils like those at Schartner Farms.
Issues around taxes – and tax exempt farming property and its uses – have been raised as well as whether tomatoes crops could be replaced with others more controversial, such as marijuana.
Schartner said he has considered the issues raised about his project and believes it remains a cutting-edge solution for farming in Rhode Island.
“By right, we are allowed to build a greenhouse. We are not, however, attempting to circumvent any related needed permits. We relayed to the Town of Exeter we will apply for any and all needed permits (i.e. plumbing, electrical and mechanical),” he said.
CEA has been around for over 30 years, he said, adding, “It is a practice within any greenhouse using modern methods and technologies and can be applied to any existing greenhouse.”
Schartner also said that the town has approved other large projects – solar, residential, commercial and he believes that “the residents of Exeter would rather save Schartner Farm instead of having a large condo complex or commercial building on our property.”
“This 70-acre field is a commercial field in which our family has farmed for over a century – all hours of the day – it is not a garden or hobby field, it is our livelihood and passion,” he said.
“It is a reasonable use and not overt in size respective to other commercial fields. Also, a 500-foot (plus) set back will be maintained once finished. It is imperative to me and my family that the vista and rural character will be maintained,” Schartner said.
He said that the project is “not only saving our farm, but we are going to be able to assist in saving farms across the state and region. My family has been here for four generations and I hope it’s around for another four. This is a win-win for Rhode Island and local farmers.”
On the tax matter, he said that offices he has also offered the town of Exeter, the portion where the greenhouse will be built, payment-in-lieu-of-taxes money in excess of $400,000 to the town.
Lastly, he said, “This greenhouse will only grow tomatoes. We are in the food business, not the pharmaceutical business.”