Organic produce operation innovative

Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer

The Deming-based organic vegetable operation Preferred Produce may be cultivating a new, high-tech model for sustainable agriculture.

The business, which launched in 2010, developed an innovative, fast-to-market strategy for greenhouse produce that offers consumers locally grown vegetables that the company says are much more nutritious than what most commercial operations offer.

That’s because Preferred Produce goods are sold to shoppers within a maximum of 48 hours after being picked, and usually within eight to 12 hours. The allows vegetables to retain a lot more taste and nutritional bang than produce from most other farms, said company founder and co-owner Matthew Stong.

“Nutrition levels in a ripe-red tomato are 17 times higher than in a pink tomato, and commercial, store-bought tomatoes are generally picked when they’re pink,” Stong said.

That locally grown, high-value strategy has helped Preferred Produce attract $1.45 million in investments from the New Mexico Angels, New Mexico Community Capital and the New Mexico Mezzanine Partners since last spring.

The company, which reported about $600,000 in revenue in its first full year of operations in 2012, expects to generate about $1.2 million in sales this year, after opening a second, one-acre greenhouse in January. It sells its products to Whole Foods Markets throughout the state, at farmers markets in southern New Mexico and El Paso, and directly to consumers through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) distribution model.

In addition, it’s now constructing a commercial greenhouse in northern California near San Francisco on farm land it acquired in December, marking the company’s first expansion outside New Mexico.

But while the company’s local, fast-to-market strategy is gaining ground among retailers and consumers, Preferred Produce’s innovative, high-tech farming structure is also drawing local and international industry attention as a potential model for sustainable agriculture.

In January, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences led a delegation of 20 top-ranking scientists on a tour of Preferred Produce’s new operation in California.

Weiping Gao, program coordinator for the Sino-Canada Technology Exchange Center in Toronto, said her institute organized the tour because Preferred Produce’s operation is uniquely forward-looking.

“The group wanted to understand more about organic agriculture in the U.S., and Preferred Produce has some very innovative strategies,” Gao said. “Top scientists who lead China’s agricultural research programs participated on the tour.”

Stong, the brains behind Preferred Produce’s high-tech structure and business strategy, is fairly well known among China’s agricultural elite. He taught agriculture for two years at Taiwan’s National University in Taipei, and then worked for six years as an agricultural consultant in Taiwan and mainland China before launching the Deming greenhouse operation.

He has a master’s degree in soil and water science from the University of California at Riverside, and a doctorate in agricultural and biosystems engineering from the University of Arizona.

Stong said Preferred Produce is designed as a self-sustaining operation that eventually will recycle nearly 100 percent of its waste.

The company uses a biomass digester and a biomass gasification unit to turn waste products, such as wood and dead plants, into heat and electricity for greenhouse operations, Stong said. In some cases, it further recycles waste as ingredients for fertilizer, such as gathering ash from wood as phosphorus for fertilizer.

Apart from the greenhouse operations, the company is planting a pecan orchard and constructing a tilapia and shrimp farm.

“The pecan orchard will produce waste wood we can use for generators, and we’ll take fish waste – guts and such – and put it into the biomass digester,” Stong said. “The fish waste will produce oil for burning and material for fertilizer.”

Separately, Stong has developed a patent-pending, on-site algae-growing process to produce oil. Carbon is fed to algae rather than just allowing it to make its own carbon from sunlight.

“We do that because the oil yield per unit of (carbon-fed) algae is generally three times greater,” Stong said. “We’ll power our vehicles with the algae oil produced on the farm. Our system is up and running, but it’s not yet cost-effective, so for now we’re only running some of our diesel trucks with it.”

Preferred Produce’s sustainable technology, combined with its locally grown, fast-to-market concept, makes it a potential model for environmentally focused growers that can benefit healthy-food oriented retailers and consumers.

“I know of no other organizations that are doing everything we’re doing in one operation,” Stong said. “That’s why the Chinese came, because it’s such a unique system.”

Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service, said many farms have incorporated bits and pieces of what Preferred Produce is doing.

“I’m not aware of any other place where all the pieces are being brought together in one single operation,” Walker said.

Don Bustos, who runs the certified organic Santa Cruz Farm in Española, said organic growers can learn from Stong’s operation.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything of that magnitude with all those pieces,” Bustos said. “It’s quite innovative and unique.”

To date, Preferred Produce has invested about $5 million in its operations in Deming and California.