This is a story about how billions of microbes in an Iowa landfill will let Hy-Vee customers enjoy the flavor of a summer tomato in the dead of winter.
But it’s also story of sustainability, and it illustrates Hy-Vee’s commitment to local farmers, the environment, and a growing number of shoppers who want homegrown, organic produce.
“By buying locally, we are able to support the farmers and ranchers who live in our communities, while bringing our customers the very freshest food,” says Jason Sheridan, Hy-Vee’s assistant vice president of produce operations.
Now, back to those microbes.
To put it simply, microbes make nutrients available in all habitats by degrading dead organisms. A byproduct of the process can be a significant amount of methane gas. That’s the case at a landfill in Lake Mills, IA, where Mark Hommez runs Perfect Circle Corp., a 40,000 square-foot greenhouse operation.
His company “intends to help revolutionize the current food model in the Snow Belt states,” says Hommez. “It is our mission to create a system where the food you eat is grown within a few hours of where you live on a year-round basis. We wanted to give you the same tomato in February that we do in June, July and August.”
Hommez estimated that his 1,400 plants could produce 1 million pounds of tomatoes per year in the right conditions. But heating the greenhouses made that expensive and inefficient.
So about three years ago, Hommez began work on a way to harness heat from the large, water-cooled generators that convert the landfill’s methane into electricity for more than 4,000 customers.
Once the wasted warmth was diverted to his greenhouses, it created “a perfect circle,” Hommez explains.
The set-up “allows us to grow our food for taste and nutrition, not for shipping and handling. By keeping all of our produce local, we are cutting back on the carbon footprint. Most importantly, by allowing customers access to locally grown produce, we are giving them the peace of mind that the food they feed their family is of the highest quality,” he says. “We feel it is important to know where your food comes from, because an ordinary tomato travels 1,369 miles to wind up on a midwestern grocery store shelf.”
Hommez took his sustainable, organic tomatoes to the closest Hy-Vee stores, where they got a warm reception.
Perfect Circle tomatoes “are really nice, with awesome flavor,” says Todd Brouwers, produce manager at the Albert Lea, MN, store.
Brouwers says the demand for 100 percent organic produce will only grow. So will the number of customers who want products that are grown close to home.
“The trends are getting bigger and bigger, and this tomato is both,” he says.
Adds Sheridan: “Also, buying on a local level is an earth-friendly decision; we do not have as much waste as because of less travel time and fewer emissions on the road.”
Hy-Vee trucks in mid-June picked up 240 boxes — 3,600 pounds — or about 10,000 tomatoes from Perfect Circle.
Hommez says there’s more where those came from. Thanks to those microbes.
Perfect Circle and its 10 employees have their sights on strawberries and other produce, Hommez says, adding: “We’re hoping this will turn into more. It’d be nice to see a Hy-Vee truck pull up to our dock and pick up organic peppers and organic cucumbers at the same time we load the tomatoes.”