The Schartner’s Newest Venture Means Fresh Produce Year-Round

RI Grows’ controlled-environment greenhouse in Exeter will contribute to a more sustainable state

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On the border of Exeter and South Kingston, a large project is in the works. Timothy Schartner, partner in Schartner Farms and owner of Rhode Island Grows, is currently constructing a 25-acre greenhouse, which has a 10-year contract for growing tomatoes. It will be functionable and crop-yielding year-round thanks to advanced farming technology known as controlled environment agriculture (CEA). 

“There are generators in the greenhouse and those generators power lights that extend the day in the winter to equal the same [climate conditions as] July 27, so every single day, all day long, inside the greenhouse is July 27,” shares Schartner. This means it has the same CO2 levels, heat, and humidity as plants would receive in the summer, so they continue procreating and growing fruit.

Having access to local fresh produce year-round will be a huge benefit for Rhode Islanders looking to get the maximum flavor and nutrition from their produce. “The average tomato being shipped in from Mexico only has 20 percent of the nutrition of the tomato you grow in your garden in August,” explains Schartner. “It’s harvested greenish yellow, and it turns red in transit. If you cut it off before it’s ripe, it’s never going to ripen. It’ll turn red, but you’re not going to get the flavor or its nutrition. So now when we grow it locally, we’ll have a more flavorful, more nutritious product.”

Currently, Rhode Island only produces 1.6 percent of what it consumes in agricultural products, so Schartner’s greenhouse will be a huge step toward producing our food locally. Schartner emphasizes that this will help drive food costs down, too. “During the pandemic, we saw a lot of prices increase. The states that produce [their own food] – their prices didn’t go up as much.”

The greenhouse will also increase the state’s sustainability efforts, as RI Grows’ farming practices will actually result in a negative carbon footprint. For instance, the process of recapturing and reusing water means the greenhouse will only use 1-2 percent that 25 acres worth of farmland would traditionally use. Heat produced from the generators creating light will also be re-harnessed and used to heat the greenhouse instead of using boilers.

Along with the carbon footprint offset of growing locally rather than importing from Mexico and other far-flung locales, the carbon emissions from the generators are also scrubbed, chilled, and then emitted to the plants in the greenhouse. “When they do that, the greenhouse is emitting only oxygen,” says Schartner.

The greenhouse will also create 88 jobs, primarily as field hands – work that would ordinarily be seasonal but would be year-round employment because of the CEA technology.

The project has faced some opposition, including complaints that the scale of the project and use of new, advanced farming technology would be better suited elsewhere. RI Grows has also faced backlash for fear that in the future more controversial plants, like cannabis, could replace the tomato crops.

“We produce food,” Schartner responds. “We are in the food business, we have been for generations and we will be for generations more. We are not in the pharmaceutical industry; we’re in the farming industry.” He adds that the marijuana industry isn’t economically feasible in their model, either.

Schartner projects the greenhouse will be complete by July this year, and he looks forward to what this will mean for Rhode Island and the town. “Right now, as it stands, we almost bring Exeter to a neutral carbon footprint on all the residential carbon, which is houses and cars,” he says. “Exeter will be the greenest town in Rhode Island.”

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