Green Valley News, Dan Shearer, Associated Press
In this photo taken Dec. 19, 2011, a piece of machinery prepares a site where the first of several greenhouses will go in Amado, Ariz., south of Tucson, Ariz. A longtime Mexican grower plans greenhouse operations in Amado that someday could employ more than 200 people.

GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — Those to-die-for tomatoes at local suppliers soon will be picked closer to home — and more available here in peak summer months — as a longtime Mexican grower plans greenhouse operations in Amado that someday could employ more than 200 people.

Ground has been broken for the first of five 12-acre greenhouses on a 60-acre spread in Amado, purchased from a sister company by Wholesum Family Farms from Sopori Ranch and already undergoing site improvements. Completion of the first greenhouse is expected in August, with production starting in October, involving the transplanting of 15- to 20-inch starts grown from traditionally-bred Dutch seed in the company's nursery in Sonora, Mexico, said General Manager Ricardo Crisantes. From seed to harvest takes about 90 days, with the first yield expected at about 9 million pounds, "God willing," Crisantes said.

He estimates the initial workforce will involve 30 to 50 full-time positions. The company will be looking for workers with skills in crop work and backgrounds in horticulture and agronomy who are familiar with growth stages as well as efficient-production practices, and hopes to tap the University of Arizona for resources as future harvest yields multiply. The tomato crop should reach peak production in about five years.

Crisantes said the company will begin accepting applications in May, and that as it can afford to expand according to its master plan, may ultimately employ as many as 240. With start-up costs exceeding $10 million, that may be several years down the road.

"We're not sure how long it will take," Crisantes said. "We're expanding conservatively."

Wholesum's Mexican operations, including distribution and production, now employ about 500.

Amado's abundance of sunny days — more than 300 a year — heavily influenced the company's decision to establish a growing operation there. Two varieties will launch the endeavor, beefsteak and vine tomatoes, both of which will be grown according to USDA-certified organic standards and sustainable agricultural practices, in a mix of coco husk and compost, Crisantes said.

How the production will affect consumer prices is unknown, as those are set by retailers, and wholesale price is only a small portion of that. But Arizona and other Southwest locales can expect a consistent supply of fresh, flavor-rich tomatoes year round, Crisantes said.

The family company and its Wholesum Harvest organic produce brand date back three generations to Ricardo's grandfather Miguel Crisantes Gatzionis, who migrated from Greece to Mexico in the 1920s and began farming in Sinaloa in 1930. His son Theojary (Ricardo's father) became an organic farming pioneer there, and after transforming the farm to sustainable practices now oversees the hand-off of their organic operation to Ricardo and his brothers Adrian and Theojary Jr. The latter are the outfit's university-trained grow talent and are regarded as experts in organic vegetable production.

They are working to teach upcoming family members as well as staff to be environmentally responsible, Ricardo said. The company's first warehouse in Nogales is outfitted with solar panels, energy-saving light bulbs and recycling programs.

Its new greenhouses are based on technology developed in Holland, the world leader in closed-system farming, and will consist of framework of aluminum and steel from Holland, and glass from the U.S., through which air and water will be recirculated, for energy savings of about 30 percent. Reuse of drain water at the facility will reap about 40 percent in water savings.

The property will include a low-profile, enclosed metal building to house environmental support, including irrigation pumps, mixing tanks and hot water boiler to protect from possible freezes. In summer, evaporative coolers will help keep the greenhouses from overheating. No outside equipment storage is planned, Crisantes said.

Early on, his grandfather saw great potential in the greenhouse concept where growing conditions could be optimized and biological factors controlled. He traveled to Spain and Holland, learning from the masters in such production. Unsure if he could make a commercial go of organic produce, he nearly gave up faith when he discovered a market for tomatoes and cucumbers in the San Francisco area, Crisantes said. He found northwest Mexico's vast climactic resources ideal for growing and began exporting crops to the United States via railroad.

Wholesum has expanded in the organics realm, which now accounts for about 80 percent of its business. Crops under its brand are grown year-round throughout Mexico, among them peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, squash, zucchini and mangos, some of which will likely be grown in Amado as greenhouses are added, Crisantes said. All are now shipped throughout the U.S. by truck.

Wary that organics, generally pricier than standard grocery chain fare, might fall victim to the depressed U.S. economy, Crisantes said the company's Amado project will tell whether it's fading, but he is optimistic.

"We've seen tremendous growth in the company even after the recession in 2008 hit," he said. Growth has increased more than 20 percent a year for the past five. "It seems more and more, people are becoming aware of what we put in our bodies."

The new venture is a significant financial outlay for Wholesum Farms and plans are to develop cautiously, with costs expected to ease once infrastructure is established. There is no firm schedule on when subsequent greenhouses will be added.

Crisantes speaks confidently that purchase of the Southern Arizona spread, formerly used for cattle grazing, is a good fit. Not only are growing conditions excellent, it is close enough to draw agricultural expertise and talent from UofA. And nestled against the majestic Diablo Peak area, the country setting is easy on the eyes.

"It's gorgeous in winter, gorgeous in summer," he said.

Ricardo and his brothers all have their own families, who are already in love with the place, and which they hope will produce the most valuable resource of all, another generation of farmers.

Information from: Green Valley News, http://www.gvnews.com