Raise Greenhouse Vegetables as Cash Crops

People who grow in glass houses can make money if they love gardening and get the facts about greenhouse vegetables first.

| January/February 1983

greenhouse vegetables - woman examining lettuce plant in hydroponic container

Greenhouse tomatoes, ripening to maturity.

James W. Wilson

Around most folks' kitchens, fresh produce is worth its weight in gold during the winter months. For that reason, it's not uncommon for home gardeners to dream of building greenhouses and cultivating vegetables for sale. Well, those fantasies can be transformed into profitable realities if the would-be grower will take time to gather in-depth information about the business before he or she invests any cash in it.

There are various methods of gathering the technical data you'll need in order to decide whether or not "under glass" gardening is for you. Perhaps the best way to begin would be to attend a "short course" or conference on growing greenhouse vegetables. However, although such seminars are usually billed as basic classes, you may well find yourself overwhelmed if you go into one without at least some understanding of horticulture. If that's the case, though, don't let the experience discourage you. Just pay close attention, take detailed notes (or make tapes), stop other students in hallways to ask questions when necessary, and attend the trade shows to talk with suppliers. You'll accumulate a great deal of information.

A two-day course might cost $200 to $500, but it could save you thousands of dollars in trial-and-error learning. Don't put out any money, however, without asking yourself a few searching questions.

Consider the Field

First of all — setting aside lifestyle considerations for the moment — ask yourself whether you really need a greenhouse to grow income crops. After all, if you can afford to pay cash for five or more acres of fertile land, you might be better off growing vegetables intensively in the open, rather than in a greenhouse. There are "field techniques" — such as utilizing simple (unheated) plastic canopies to lengthen your growing season — that can help you bring your harvests to market earlier and later than your competition. By adopting such methods, you can even shut down your operation during the worst of winter and maintain your contacts with grocery, restaurant, and institutional buyers by delivering stored vegetables or forced delicacies.

And even if intensive field gardening doesn't appeal to you, you'll still need to consider whether having a commercial greenhouse will be feasible in your location. Remember that the farther north you are, the higher your heating bills will be, especially in regions where wintry days are likely to be windy or cloudy.

Although a few new vegetable greenhouses have opened recently in the North, the "growing under glass" industry there is pretty much either holding static or declining. So find yourself a map and draw a rough line from Columbia, South Carolina to Dallas, Texas. Potential net profits from greenhouse vegetables tend to increase south of that line. To the west of Dallas, however, the altitude of the land will determine the effectiveness of the operation. The best opportunities there will be at low elevations in warm valleys or at higher levels where the more frequently clear winter days increase the efficiency of solar heating systems.

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