When Chuck Tryon took over as president of Owatonna-based Bushel Boy Farms in early October 2020, the U.S. was still a couple months away from an approved Covid-19 vaccine. In late November, Minnesota would go on to experience its worst peak of Covid cases.
Like virtually every business at the time, Bushel Boy faced a great deal of uncertainty. But that’s not just because of the pandemic. A more pressing concern? A shortage of workers to staff Bushel Boy’s tomato greenhouses in Greater Minnesota and Iowa. The company has two indoor farming operations: One at its homebase in Owatonna, and another in Mason City, Iowa. In Minnesota, Bushel Boy operates an interconnected network of nine greenhouses.
“Farm labor in the U.S. is a challenge, whether you’re indoors or outdoors,” Tryon said in a recent interview with TCB. “It does cause daily challenges.”
The reasons behind the shortage are complicated, but, across the country, a sharp drop in immigrant labor has been one cause of concern for some farmers. Even before the pandemic, labor shortage was already an issue for a number of other industries in Greater Minnesota. In November 2020, rural parts of the state had “more job postings than unemployment claims,” Finance & Commerce reported earlier this year, citing data from Minnesota’s jobs agency.
Tryon said his company has been looking at ways to “enhance our ability to recruit people” in both Minnesota and Iowa. That’s involved partnering with the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and other businesses in town. The chamber has had some success in bringing new industries and jobs to the region, Tryon said. But now, the concern is finding enough workers to fill those jobs.
“There is a little bit of a lag,” Tryon said. “We’re working hard with the local chamber of commerce and other businesses to promote that it’s not just an area for new construction and new development, but also a place for people to live, work, and thrive.”
Bushel Boy has been doing what it can to “engage” with local communities, Tryon said. In both Mason City and Owatonna, the company is talking with local public schools to see if there’s any “educational support” it can provide.
Tryon has worked in food and agriculture for most of his career, so he’s well acquainted with the challenges of modern farming. Before he joined Bushel Boy, he worked for Pillsbury and General Mills. He also oversaw food and beverage departments at Ecolab.
Tryon thinks indoor farming has the potential to become an even bigger business. Bushel Boy, which was founded in 1990, spent more than $35 million to build a massive expansion in Iowa. The company has also added more square footage to its greenhouse in Owatonna.
Bushel Boy isn’t the only Owatonna company betting big on indoor farming: Revol Greens, which grows lettuce in greenhouses, is adding a new massive facility in Texas to complement its operations in Minnesota and California.
“It’s a really active time in the world of indoor farming,” Tryon said. “There’s a lot of investment going into the space. There’s a lot of expansions by a number of different companies and startups.”
If anything, the pandemic has driven home the importance of a diversified supply chain, especially for food, Tryon said. For Bushel Boy, that’s been a positive. “People are really looking at the supply chain for food and consumer products, and they want to find ways to shorten that supply chain,” he said. “Locally grown produce is certainly of higher interest than it’s really ever been. Some of that is related to people really focusing on where their food comes from, and trying to get it as close to the source as they can.”
Bushel Boy’s primary business is still in the grocery sector. But the company does sell products to food service distributors, which then go on to sell to restaurants and schools. Tryon said the latter segment has been a bit more “challenging” as restaurants cope with pandemic-induced restrictions.
Is there a future for Bushel Boy beyond tomatoes? Maybe. Tryon said the company is now in the second phase of a strawberry pilot at its research facility in Owatonna. Bushel Boy built that facility with the intent of exploring new varieties of tomatoes, as well as “non-tomato crops,” Tryon said.
“Indoor farming will continue to grow,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”