Made in Tri-States: Local operation grows produce for variety of customers

Greenhouse Manager Jena Jepson harvests lettuce at Hilltop Greens in Dyersville, Iowa. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

DYERSVILLE, Iowa — Within a pair of sprawling greenhouses in Dyersville, Jena Jepson presides over a wide variety of growing produce.

She believes that the facilities provide an optimal environment for the growth of lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes and other vegetables.

“In a greenhouse, you can dial things in and control the environment,” she said. “You can make sure (the produce) is getting the perfect amount of light, water and nutrients. When you’re outside, you cannot control any of that.”

The produce grown within the greenhouses is sold to customers through Hilltop Greens, an offshoot of parent company FarmTek that was created about two years ago.

The produce is sold directly to local residents and distributed to area schools and eateries.

Magoo’s Pizza in Dubuque is among the small contingent of local restaurants that receive produce from the Dyersville company. Susan Farber, co-owner of Magoo’s, said the greenhouse provides the eatery with fresh basil, cucumbers and a variety of tomatoes.

Farber said Magoo’s sought to find a partner that would provide it with local produce. The connection forged with Hilltop Greens helped the business accomplish that goal.

As Magoo’s has expanded, the relationship with Hilltop Greens has helped the business meet its growing demand.

“They’re very responsive and customer-friendly,” she said. “Sometimes, we are in grave need (of produce), and they always come through for us.”

BRANCHING OUT

The food created at Hilltop Greens wasn’t always so widely available.

Years ago, the facility was used solely as a research center and demonstration area for FarmTek, which sells greenhouses to customers throughout the world.

The produce created there was sold exclusively to FarmTek employees. As the operation expanded, however, it became clear that other sales avenues were needed.

“We got to the point where we were creating so much produce that we couldn’t just sell it to our employees,” Jepson said.

The products now are sold to a small group of restaurants, including Magoo’s and Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar in Dubuque. Dyersville restaurant Country Junction and Cascade business Cheryl’s Flour Garden Bakery and Coffee Bar also are reliable customers.

In addition to these businesses, Hilltop Greens provides produce to multiple Dyersville schools and sells vegetables to members of the public one day per week.

Jepson leads a group of three workers who manage the complex operations.

Each week follows a relatively similar process. The tight-knit crew spends Mondays and Tuesdays harvesting the wide array of produce. The group sends product out to restaurants on Wednesdays and distributes it to customers via curbside pickup on Thursdays.

On Fridays, the trio of greenhouse workers sows seeds and cleans everything in preparation for the weekend.

INTRICATE PROCESS

At Hilltop Greens, produce is created through a process known as hydroponics. Put simply, this means their products are grown in water rather than soil.

Seeds are placed in a rock wall material and spend about two weeks in a “propagation room” before being released into the larger systems within the greenhouses. Nutrient-rich water provides the necessary support to keep the plants growing.

Meanwhile, the enclosed environment eliminates many of the variables that can stifle a plant’s maturation.

“There is not weather damage or dirt or pest damage,” Jepson said. “That helps you achieve higher yields.”

Because of its cyclical nature, the hydroponic method also is praised for being environmentally conscious.

“The water recirculates and gets reused,” said Jepson. “Because of that, it is a lot more sustainable.”

Farber, of Magoo’s, took a firsthand look at the Hilltop Greens facilities and was impressed by the operation.

“The first thing that struck me was that it’s huge,” she said. “It is very well-organized, and I like the layout. They do things in a way that’s safe and healthy and clean.”

Jepson thinks that more consumers are looking to source their vegetables from nearby producers.

“I think people are recognizing the importance of buying it local,” she said. “We’ve seen a difference just in the past year where people want to work with local companies.”