Thinking big, growing locally

25-acre greenhouse would grow 15 million pounds of tomatoes annually


It could be a giant sculpture with its hundreds of white pillars symmetrically aligned to give passing motorists the impression of a flickering movie. But it’s not.

The artist behind the structure covering 25 acres off Route 2 in Exeter (who recites poetry from his high school days and talks about the individual rewards of work) is a farmer whose family name - Schartner - is synonymous with strawberry picking, pumpkins and sweet corn. What Tim Schartner is building he believes is not only the future of farming, good paying jobs, the salvation of Rhode Island farms that would otherwise be sold and subdivided for housing or shopping centers and most important nutritious locally grown food.

This, by no means, is a modest venture. Schartner, who is chairman and chief management officer of Rhode Island Grows LLC will have spent $61 million by the time this giant greenhouse, which is temporarily on hold, is operational. Nor is the projected production of this facility modest.

Schartner, who says he has 10-year-contracts with Sunset Foods to buy the beef steak tomatoes he will grow, expects one trailer truck of tomatoes to leave the greenhouse every day. That doesn’t sound extraordinary until Schartner breaks the truckload down to 42,000 pounds of tomatoes every day of the year.  That’s more than 15 million pounds of tomatoes a year. These vine-ripened tomatoes will be delivered to restaurants and markets within hours of being picked, as compared to tomatoes grown in Mexico or Chile that have taken days and weeks to reach the northeast.

Sounds impossible?

Actually, what Schartner is building is not all that different from what 68 licensed Rhode Island marijuana cultivators are doing in converted manufacturing facilities and warehouses across the state. To maximize output and ensure consistency and quality, cultivators have harnessed technology including hydroponics in a computer-controlled environment to replicate ideal conditions for the plants.

Schartner will likewise use controlled environment agriculture (CEA) to grow organic tomatoes. As he puts it, this gigantic greenhouse will replicate July 27 - the best day of the year for farming in these parts - every day of the year. The plants will receive the precise amount of water and nutrients needed for maximum output. Water captured from the greenhouse glass roof will be channeled to a cistern, eliminating the need for wells and tapping local aquifers. The operation won’t use pesticides. The greenhouse will have blackout screens that will close during the night hours to capture the artificial lighting required to create 24-hour daylight conditions. The greenhouse will have its own bee colony to pollinate the plants.

A single tomato plant, Schartner said, can live to be a year old and produce upwards of 150 pounds of fruit. Three to five tomatoes grow on the lowest branch of the plant. When those tomatoes have been harvested, the branch is cut off and the next branch becomes fruit bearing. As the vine grows, it is wrapped around itself so that the plant is never more than six feet high.

To screen the greenhouse that is already partially hidden from traffic on Route 2 by a berm, Schartner plans a barn-red facing to maintain the farm tradition of the site. A portion of the 500-foot separation from Route 2 would be used for the cultivation of vegetables and possibly strawberries.

But for all Schartner is doing to preserve Schartner’s as a farm as well as advance CEA as a means for other Rhode Island farmers to continue farming, he faces town zoning official Hal Morgan.

Was the process followed?

Under state law, Schartner says, farmers are not required to obtain a change of zone to erect farm related structures on farmland. According to Schartner, the town was notified in June 2018 of the proposed greenhouse, and on October 2020 was informed clearing would start. The steel pillars were erected in June 2021. Then in October, Morgan issued a cease and desist on the basis, Schartner said, that this was a commercial, not a farm, structure. Despite two letters from the state that back Schartner’s interpretation, Morgan has not lifted the cease and desist. Morgan said he hasn’t seen the letters.

Morgan said Monday the issue is process. He said he has no documentation that farms are exempt from zoning and regulations such as development plan review and building permits required by the town.

Schartner has appealed Morgan’s cease and desist and is to appear before the zoning board on Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will be on Zoom.

“It’s a very simple thing; it’s process,” said Morgan “I follow the statutory law.”

Schartner said he has teamed with URI and New England Institute of Technology to implement a state of the art curriculum, as well as using the farm as the site for field trips as part of curricula for school students. He is also big on citing the environmental benefits of the greenhouse, saying it will have a negative carbon footprint, the equivalent of taking 6,000 cars off the road.

Schartner is realist. As a resident and Exeter taxpayer, Schartner wants to resolve issues with the town as amicably and as fast as possible. A suit is an option, but he notes that could be costly and in essence he is suing himself since as a taxpayer he would be footing the bill. Putting aside the law, he argues what he is doing offers the best chance of preserving the character and tradition of farming for Exeter. The alternative is the sale of land and its development for other uses. Morgan expects the 5-member board will vote on Schartner’s appeal.

Should he get the go ahead, Schartner said the greenhouse could be completed with its first crop of tomatoes growing by this July.

Schartner’s vision reaches beyond the Rhode Island Grows greenhouse as big as that is.

Local wealth creation

Asked about the financing of the operation, Schartner replied in an email: “We are not connected to venture capital we have procured all the necessary contracts and capital both the long and hard way. Which insures that we can issue phantom shares to the workers (88 year-round jobs) in the greenhouse to create a better culture. I don’t think this exists yet in the country. We are trying to create local wealth creation model for everyone that offset all the big boxes in our towns in siphoning our economy and culture.”

With the help of the Rhode Island Foundation and the Department of Environmental Management division of agriculture, Schartner intends to approach Rhode Island farmers with a pilot CEA program.

“Once I prove it and have got this up and running and stabilize it,” he said.

Is that what he hopes for?

Hope is not a word Schartner applies to farming.

“This (farming) is what we do. This is what we know.”

Schartner calls the greenhouse and all those tomatoes he aims to grow a “wealth creator” that harnesses multiple state resources and human effort.

“Hope is for Sunday,” he said.