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If you wanted to visit Toigo Orchards a few years ago, you could have driven out to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and pulled down the long drive of the 106-acre farm. You’d see workers freely coming in and out of the unlocked doors of five acres of greenhouses surrounded by organic peach trees. No one would stop you, or mind you were there.
Today, the friendly nature of Toigo Orchards remains, but there’s also a massive security presence. Unlocked doors are replaced by security guards and checkpoints. High fences, controlled access gates, and 24/7 video surveillance greet you upon arrival. Entry to the farm now requires everyone entering to go through rigorous protocols. Badge access is required for all workers. Visitors must leave their driver’s license with friendly security guards for the duration of the visit.
Why such a dramatic change in so short a time? Proprietor Mark Toigo says the high-tech security is all part of a business decision he was forced to make when low-cost foreign tomatoes flooded the organic market in the mid-Atlantic states – nearly bankrupting his decades-long greenhouse tomato business. To save his struggling farm from the glut, Toigo converted his tomato crops to cannabis.
The move not only helped save his generational family farm but may also save lives. Mark not only grows cannabis for use in medical marijuana but has also partnered with major Philadelphia hospitals to research pain management and opioid reduction.
The boy who grew up amongst the organic fruit trees covering the majority of his acreage (his cannabis operation is surrounded by a peach orchard) didn’t expect to find himself the entrepreneur of a small cannabis empire. But, the markets, Mexico, and a few knowledgeable Canadians helped him realize it was time to forge a new high-tech and highly entrepreneurial path in farming.
From Farmers’ Market to Farm-to-Table
Mark began farm-life young when he would work in his parents’ orchard. The Toigos were successfully selling a variety of conventionally grown apples, peaches, strawberries, and other seasonal tree fruit at local farmers’ markets. Thanks to their farm’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the Toigos were one of the first farmers to tap into the burgeoning local food movement in the city. The family’s success helped them expand business north to farmers’ markets in New York City.
When Mark became an adult and started running the farm, he expanded his selling season beyond summer fruit. He began cultivating greenhouse tomatoes “just to give us something to sell earlier in the season.”
“We started with hydroponics,” Toigo said. “It extended our ability to sell and keep more people around. We could do a fall crop, and we had them in the wintertime too, so that was a big, big change for us in how we worked.”
Soon, Mark found himself at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement just as it was taking off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “We started to really cultivate relationships with customers over a long time, and we really got much, much better at growing diverse food items, Mark said. “We were specialty growing just for farmers markets and restaurants.”
That’s when the local retailers started to sit up and take notice. That’s when Mark decided to switch from conventionally grown tomatoes to organic. At the same time, he raced to build a farm infrastructure that could provide his locally grown organic tomatoes to grocery chains in the mid-Atlantic states.
A Glut In the Market
Mark says it took a lot of time, money, and effort to get certified organic.
His operation was the only greenhouse producer on the East Coast, giving him a competitive edge. But then, there was a shift in supply.
According to Mark, producers from Mexico began exporting organic tomatoes to the mid-Atlantic retailers and created a glut in the marketplace. Suddenly, Toigo says he was losing profit.
“Now we’re forced to sign larger supply agreements, but we’re not holding water,” Toigo explains. “You know what retailers we had a supply contract with said they were going to pay what we were promised, and then what we were getting paid was not the reality.”
The retailers that Tiogo had contracts with shifted their supply strategy to include
Mexican tomatoes. “They want you when the price is right. Not necessarily when there’s a harvest and you have to move your product. So it does become a contentious kind of thing that takes place between buyers and growers; as much as retailers want to promote their steadfast dedication to the local, you can get banged up in the process a lot.”
When Mexican producers flooded the organic heirloom market, Mark says he tried to stay afloat by growing different variations. But foreign producers quickly caught on and he couldn’t grow enough tomatoes to sell for commercial volume at a profitable price point.
“And so we started getting a lot of pressure from our buyers telling us, “I’ll buy more organic from you if you can beat Mexico’s price.” Toigo said this was about more than profit. “What the heck’s that have to do with local?” Mark wondered about the retailers’ request for Toigo Organics to match foreign prices.
“I mean everything you’re selling to the consumer is the concept that you’re supporting the local growers, the food system as a whole. But the reality is, you know, you’re buying some of our product, but most other producers are not even growing in America.”
Toigo calls it a form of greenwashing.
“Farming is historically a cultural event, it’s not an occupation to speak, you have to grow into it, and you have to have a really good relationship between you and your partners, because not every season is going to be a good one. And they have to be able to pull you through when you’re having a bad time, and you got to take care of them when you’re having a good year too.”
Toigo says he finally saw the writing on the wall after working with “world-class horticulturalists” from Canada. They recommend Toigo switch his greenhouse operations from tomatoes to cannabis. The Canadian government had legalized marijuana for medical use in 2001.
Since then, Canadian farmers had been perfecting cannabis-growing techniques for nearly twenty years. They saw in Mark’s tomato greenhouses the perfect equivalencies to growing cannabis and encouraged him to convert. Canadian horticulturalists encouraged Toigo to make the switch and helped him convert his greenhouses.
“So, in the cannabis space you’re either an indoor grow, or you’re a greenhouse grow, you could be hybrid too, but we are truly a greenhouse grower,” Mark explained.
“Some of my friends up in Canada started getting into cannabis cultivation. They just started switching from tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers or whatever they happen to grow, and they migrated into cannabis.”
Mark followed suit. Cannabis, Toigo found, had many similar attributes to the tomatoes business.
As with his tomato business, Toigo was able to use cannabis and grow his own product, market it, and build a transportation business around it.
“We felt like we are really well aligned to be able to do it because we already had the right people,” Mark told D2D. “We were already doing a lot of this work; now we’re just doing it with cannabis. The parallels are really profound. Now we’re just doing it with a different commodity.”
The one thing that didn’t translate from tomato to cannabis was how it reaches the end-user. Cannabis, even for medical use, has some of the most stringent regulations in all of agriculture. With tomatoes, Toigo was selling directly into retail grocery chains, restaurants, or farmer’s markets. With cannabis, Toigo decided to open his own dispensaries and use his transportation business to send his product to other dispensaries in Pennsylvania. Toigo is proud of how he has vertically integrated his business and intends to grow it in the coming years.
Toigo says he’s committed to ensuring his facility has not only the healthiest growing environment possible for his farm but for the entire community. His first step was to ensure the CO2 produced during cannabis production at the backside of their burners is captured. That captured carbon is then fed back into the cannabis for improved plant health.
Most importantly, Toigo is committed to the high-quality watershed district his facility operates in, free from any harmful agricultural runoff. Toigo says his cannabis is “pesticide-free.” And, while he uses private wells for watering, he ensures it’s all captured in a close looped system that reuses water and prevents any runoff into nearby waterways.
“We knew any runoff from our backyard would go straight into the Chesapeake Bay,” Toigo told D2D. “That’s why we have no runoff at this facility.”
A Lasting Legacy
Toigo said profits continue to rise for cannabis producers, but, like all other crops, it is a commodity and subject to price fluctuation. And as states continue to legalize both medical and adult (i.e., recreational) marijuana, Toigo thinks prices will like decrease in the long run.
But Toigo says his sole reason isn’t profit. When asked what his proudest accomplishment has been thus far, he points to his partnership with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM). Toigo and PCOM are currently running five studies to conduct research into pain management and opioid addiction. That, Toigo says, despite the many struggles he and his family have faced over the years as farmers, makes everything worth the price.
“And really, it’s the best part of the whole process, to know that we’re helping to contribute to non-anecdotal evidence about medicinal marijuana. That’s the flip side of all this that we’re here for the right reason.”