NE Ohio Greenhouse Industry History

A few decades ago Northeast Ohio was home to a thriving “hot house” tomato Industry that produced many thousands of tons of tomatoes each year, valued in the millions of dollars. In a 1972 story, The Cleveland Plain Dealer referred to the area as the “Greenhouse Capital of America.” Today, NE Ohio still has numerous greenhouse operations producing vegetables, ornamental plants and herbs “under roof.” But the region is nowhere near what it once was as a dominant presence in the national greenhouse industry. Here is a brief chronology of some of the notable happenings in NE Ohio greenhouse history:

1887—T.W. James built a greenhouse on Schaaf Road near Brooklyn Heights in Cuyahoga County.

1892—Fred Witthuhn opened a greenhouse at Pearl and Dover Streets that was later moved to the Schaaf Road area. The Witthuhn family managed the operation that grew into one of the largest farms in the area. One of the reasons for the great success of greenhouse gardening in Cleveland was the development and use of innovative farming and business practices. (Rose, 1950)

1901—Martin Ruetenik, son of a German immigrant, developed a greenhouse design that was the adopted as the standard for commercial greenhouse structures. Other farming innovations included a special water supply system that incorporated a dam and wind-power along with storage tanks. An early adapter of truck farming, Ruetenik’s fleet of Model T Ford trucks distributed fresh produce throughout the region and even into adjoining states of Pennsylvania and Indiana. In 1901, he created an early profit-sharing plan with employees to give them a share in the business. The plan generated interest and inquiries from companies in other lines of business at that time.

1924— Dean’s Greenhouse was established in Westlake and remains one of the area’s oldest, continually operational businesses.

1927—John Hoag and his son Ellis (Bud) placed 2.2 acres of farmland under glass at the southeast corner of the village of Sheffield in Lorain County. Hoag’s original greenhouse was composed of seven interconnected houses, each 411 feet long and varying from 32 to 36 feet wide. The sandy soils of North Ridge proved ideal for growing tomatoes and gourmet cucumbers in greenhouses.

1930s—Herrick’s Greenhouse is built in Twinsburg.

1937-1938—Hoag added an additional six houses, bringing the total glass-covered area to just over 4 acres.

1937—Greater Cleveland was home to America’s largest concentration of farming acreage (225 acres) under glass, much of it in the Schaaf Road/Old Brooklyn and Olmsted Falls areas. (Rose, 1950)

1940s—Lonardo’s Greenhouse & Fresh Produce Market opens in Youngstown and is still going strong today with 13 greenhouses.

1946—After World War II, several other farmers along the North Ridge near Sheffield encased many acres under glass.

June 8, 1953—A devastating tornado hit the Sheffield greenhouses and 75 percent of Hoag’s Greenhouses were destroyed. Because of the potential of tiny glass shards in the tomatoes, the entire crop had to be destroyed. Adversity can bring out the best in people; the next day growers and friends from all over northeastern Ohio arrived with tools in hand to begin the task of rebuilding the greenhouses. Several returned to work nights glazing the greenhouses.

Mid-1960s—Researchers developed an innovative special generating unit that burned a mixture of natural gas and air to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), which enriched the greenhouse atmosphere, speeding photosynthesis and increasing plant growth and tomato production. Research identified lack of CO2 as the most limiting factor in the growth of greenhouse crops. Normal atmospheric conditions of 300 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 were found to be limiting, while 1,500 to 2,000 ppm produced the most optimal growth. This innovation was dubbed “the best thing that happened to the tomato since it came inside out of the cold.”

1971—The greenhouse growers in Sheffield, Avon and communities to the east belonged to a cooperative association in Berea, Ohio known as the Greenhouse Vegetables Packing Company. Growers would truck their produce to this facility where it would be sorted, graded and packed for distribution to markets. Another organization from downtown Cleveland, known as the Cleveland Growers Marketing Company, handled the sales and distribution of the tomato crop. In 1971, these two organizations merged. Several local growers, including Bud Hoag, Tom Wolfe, and Bob Hiltabiddle, served as officers in these organizations. At peak production, approximately 90 greenhouse growers in northeastern Ohio belonged to the association.

1972—Scott and Sue Kollman purchased Herrick’s Greenhouse in Twinsburg and established Kollman’s Greenhouse, Inc., which is still in operation.

April 9, 1972—The Cleveland Plain Dealer referred to Cuyahoga-Lorain counties area as the “Greenhouse Capital of America.”

Late 1970s—Ten growers in Sheffield had approximately 24 acres in greenhouse production. Among the largest growers in Avon was the Peak family. The introduction of water-soluble fertilizers contributed to greater yields, and from the late 1920s to the 1970s tomato production more than doubled.

1981—Growers would load their tomatoes and cucumbers into 30-lb. tubs that were color coded to identify the particular greenhouse where the produce was grown.

December 19, 1989—A devastating freeze hit Florida and the Florida tomato crop was destroyed. The gourmet greenhouse tomato crop in Sheffield and Avon was not ready for harvest. The Florida farmers scrambled to replant. Typically they would stagger their fields so that the tomatoes would not ripen all at the same time. But, because of the frost, they replanted all their tomatoes at one time. After December 19, 1989, there were no Florida tomatoes, and the local tomatoes were not ready for harvest. Cleveland area grocery stores began importing Mexican tomatoes at $2.50 per pound, and then selling them at $2.99 per pound. At this high price, sales were limited and profits dismal. Meanwhile, farmers in Sheffield and Avon were borrowing money to pay the gas bills to heat their greenhouses. These loans were made as personal loans, pledging everything that a farmer owned.

March 1, 1990—The replanted Florida tomatoes hit the market in a flood. The Florida farmers were getting $.25 per pound. It cost the farmers of Sheffield and Avon $.75 per pound to produce their greenhouse gourmet tomatoes. The fate of local greenhouse farming lay in the hands of the grocers. If the grocers had sold the Florida tomatoes under $1.00 per pound, the excess supply would have been used up, and the price of Florida tomatoes would have risen. The grocers made a fateful decision. In order to make up for the low profits from tomato sales during the first quarter of 1990, they kept the price at $1.99 per pound, while buying the Florida tomatoes at $.25 per pound. Sales were not high enough to relieve the price pressure of the tomato glut, and the price obtained by the farmers stayed at $.25 per pound. The farmers of Sheffield and Avon were losing money on every tomato they sold. Many growers found themselves in debt. Some in Sheffield were unable to pay back loans as high as $300,000 without selling off their property to developers.

1991— Hoag, the oldest greenhouse in Sheffield, closed. The Ohio EPA was relentless in its prosecution of emission standards for greenhouse boilers to the point where one Sheffield grower was fined $10,000 for trying to stay in business. Some switched to growing flowers, but environmental regulations made even this impossible. One by one the growers were put out of business

2003—DeChant, which had held on by using creative marketing schemes, closed.

2006— Maria Gardens (formerly Riegelsberger Greenhouses) and Willoway Nursery closed. The two had been raising ornamental shrubbery and flowers. When Willoway Nursery tore down the Wesley Walter Greenhouses that year, the final chapter of a once flourishing industry in Sheffield and Avon was written.

2009—The Cuyahoga Valley Greenhouse Growers Association (CVGGA) was established to restore Northeast Ohio to its pre-eminent position as the “Greenhouse Capital of America.”