Village Farms has been farming in the Chihuahuan Desert, also known as the “Big Bend Region”, just north of the USA and Mexico border, for almost three decades. Here the company is rolling out a whopping 112 million pounds of fresh produce a year, all from their greenhouses located just outside the towns of Marfa and Fort Davis. Both small towns are at an average elevation of approximately 4700 feet above sea level, with temperatures that can range from a high of 100+ degrees Fahrenheit to low of 0 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the time of year.
“Extraordinary” would be a term that comes to mind, but even more so once you meet some of the farmers who brave this climate and manage Village Farms’ high-tech Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) greenhouses. Village Farms’ CEA indoor farming boasts higher yields using less land and significantly fewer precious natural resources compared to open field farming, such as water, because they grow hydroponically and can recirculate their irrigation water time and time again. Village Farms is a leader in CEA, where inside the enclosed glass greenhouses towering plants are thriving, creating a beautiful indoor garden, while outside an extremely foreboding climate awaits in the desert of Far West Texas.
One such person who manages all this beauty and precision with her expertise in CEA is Abby Lange, Facility Manager for Village Farms Marfa I greenhouse. Abby started with Village Farms as an intern over 8 years ago while pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Science with a minor in Sustainable Agriculture, and a degree emphasis on Greenhouse Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She now manages 20 acres of Tomatoes-on-the-Vine (TOV) destined for local markets and valued customer-partners including the renowned Texan Grocery chain HEB, for their Texas Roots program, which the company supports.
Abby’s responsibilities include keeping the greenhouse climate and irrigation ideal for the tomato crop she oversees, prioritizing maintenance activities, keeping the packhouse running as efficiently as possible, continually updating the company’s production forecast with the most accurate information available, assisting in the training of personnel, while keeping all of the above on time and under budget. She also told us, “As an intern I saw a broad range of jobs and work within the company, from Packing to biological control to Human Resources, but instead of merely studying these areas of expertise and helping with basic tasks, I now coordinate them all. It falls to me to ensure that communication is smooth among the Greenhouse, the Packhouse, Maintenance, our Integrated Pest Management (IPM) team, Human Resources, Sales, and our Safety and Compliance teams, and that the work of all these teams is optimized considering the current climate, the market, our staff, and the crop.”
On a personal level, Abby’s goal is to work cross functionally to streamline the company’s crop change processes to be better able to produce more weeks out of the year, and, as she notes, “to never become set in my ways, as there is always more we can do to improve.” Abby also told us that she sees automation as one of the biggest growth opportunities for Village Farms in Texas. “Everyone is short on staff these days, so we can use automation to position our staff more effectively while making their jobs less physically intensive,” she mentioned. Abby thinks that data utilization is another prime opportunity and noted, “We have decades of climate, yield, and sales data at our disposal, and we are using it more and more, but I think we can implement more advanced analytical models to leverage all that data.”
The multi-dimensional aspect of Abby’s role is a big part of her day-to-day and, from what she shared with us, one of her favorite aspects of her job. “I absolutely love telling our employees when they’re doing a great job or thanking them for what they do. Seeing the crop well cared-for, or a case of beautiful tomatoes beautifully packaged, gives me an energy like nothing else, so I make a point of reflecting that energy back to the people who make it possible to grow tomatoes in the desert day after day. I’ve heard visiting growers say that the crops and yields we achieve shouldn’t technically be possible here, so it’s something to be proud of,” Abby told us.
However, Abby also says her role does not come without worry, especially considering the climate in the region. “Sometimes it’s wind, sometimes it’s hail, sometimes it’s pathogens or pests, but in any agricultural effort, there are many factors inherently outside of our control”.
Village Farms is fortunate to have Abby on their team, and the company is glad she found them. Abby told us, “Village Farms came to my university during my junior year and presented information about the company’s expansive greenhouse cultivation and sustainable methods. I submitted my resume to apply for a summer internship because I was amazed at how big and productive the company was with such an intensive cultivation system. My sustainable ag classes taught us that agriculture is normally intensive or extensive, but Village Farms was doing both at the same time, so I knew I had to be there.”
Abby sees a bright future for CEA growing, and Village Farms at large. She closed the interview by telling us, “I believe that food independence is of the utmost importance. We import myriad agricultural products because it’s cheaper than producing them here, but we never stop to look at the reasons why it’s more expensive to produce them here, or what might happen if the geopolitical or energy networks we have ever fail, preventing us from importing these things. If we want to be resilient as a nation or even as a globe, these factors need attention.” She also told us growing in the extreme climate of Texas has its benefits, “I’ve learned more about the costs of indoor or vertical farming, enough to know that it’s the free, carbon-neutral sunlight in our farming operation that is the true blessing.” And thankfully in Far West Texas there is an abundance of clear skies and sunshine for Abby to grow fresh tomatoes that are sought after by consumers around the US.
About Village Farms
Village Farms Fresh is one of the largest growers, marketers, and distributors of premium-quality, greenhouse-grown fruits, and vegetables in North America. The food the company’s farmers grow are all harvested by hand from environmentally friendly, soil-less, glass greenhouses daily while utilizing the highest level of food safety standards available. The Village Farms® brand of fruits and vegetables are marketed and distributed primarily to local retail grocers and dedicated fresh food distributors throughout the United States and Canada. Since its inception, Village Farms has been guided by sustainability principles that enable the company to grow food 365 days a year that not only feeds the growing population but is healthier for people and the planet. Village Farms is Good for the Earth® and good for you. Good for the Earth® and Garden Fresh Flavor® are not only taglines for the company but the value proposition Village Farms Fresh lives by. And this is why it Takes a Village® to deliver on this promise.