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Greenlight for greenhouse growth in South Bend

Inside a JEM Farms hydroponics greenhouse. (image courtesy: JEM Farms)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — While selections may be limited right now, could the city of South Bend one day earn the moniker of “Salad bowl of the Midwest?” The South Bend City Council this week gave a positive recommendation for two tax abatements that could build the northern Indiana city into a major hydroponic produce market. Two companies, including one already in operation, are talking about collectively investing nearly $260 million to expand their high-tech greenhouse operations.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Pure Green Farms Chief Executive Officer Joe McGuire said he wants to expand a nearly four-acre greenhouse that grows a variety of leafy greens.

“Today, it’s minus two degrees this morning. And it’s beautiful, nice and balmy in the greenhouse. Beautiful and business as usual,” joked McGuire. ”We’re expanding our distribution with retail and food service customers, growing beautiful, green, baby lettuces here all year round.”

Pure Green Farms had its first harvest of greens early last year from its hydroponics greenhouse on the southwest side of South Bend. Now, the company is in the process of mapping out phase two, which would double the size of the operation. McGuire says it would be about an $80 million investment.

“We’re just forecasting ahead to make sure that we don’t get caught with a completely sold-out greenhouse and nowhere to go for more product,” said McGuire, who was profiled last year on Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick.

The other proposed greenhouse would dwarf the Pure Green operation. Ontario-based JEM Farms is exploring the possibility of building a greenhouse operation, as many as 100-acres under roof, in the same area of South Bend. The company says it would be a $178 million investment.

“Location, logistics-wise, it is great, right? We’re very happy the council was enthusiastic that they want us down there. It’s something we’re looking at,” said Paul J. Mastronardi, a third-generation farmer whose family runs one of the biggest hydroponic greenhouse farms in Ontario.

“It’s a family firm, a 50-acre operation, that we’re growing locally grown produce in Ontario markets right now with supplemental lighting. We’d be looking at potentially doing the same thing [in Indiana]” said Mastronardi, who added they would likely grow strawberries and market them under the Ever Tru Farms brand.

The operation would be within a couple of miles of the Indiana Toll Road, giving JEM Farms broad access to major markets. While receiving an endorsement from the city is welcome news, Mastronardi the deal is far from done.

“You’re not just farmers anymore. You need an energy background. You need a development background. It’s a lot of work that goes in these facilities,” said Mastronardi. “A lot more work needs to go into before we finalize. We will see how that plays out through the year.”

Some of the unfinished work includes help extending electricity and natural gas to the undeveloped sites. McGuire says those additional costs are also being factored in, as is competition from traditional growers, like in California, Florida and Texas.

“How can you make improvements and grow efficiencies because you have to compete with the field growers on the lettuce side, and bring value to the consumer,” said McGuire. “If you’re not efficient your costs shoot up and it makes the business model that much more difficult.”

Construction could begin in December of 2022 and wrap up in December of 2026.