Opportunities sprout in greenhouse sector

MAJOR GROWTH Acreage in Canadian greenhouses has more than tripled in the last three decades, but the country still imports nearly $2 billion worth of vegetables

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Canada’s greenhouse sector has grown by leaps and bounds, but there’s more room for growth when it comes to tomatoes, peppers and exotic vegetables.

“You can see there has been real significant growth in the past 20 years,” retired provincial crop specialist Nabi Chaudhary said at a recent greenhouse business planning workshop in Airdrie.

Nationally, there were 5,672 acres under glass or plastic in 2011 compared to 1,643 in 1981.

Alberta has about 10 per cent of those acres, just slightly behind Quebec. Ontario, with more than half, and B.C., with nearly one-quarter, are the top two. Still, millions of dollars of greenhouse-grown vegetables, bedding plants and cut flowers are imported every year.

“It shows you there is a great opportunity to expand greenhouse production in Canada,” Chaudhary said. “We are importing almost $2 billion of fresh and chilled vegetables into Canada.”

Alberta imported more than $11 million worth of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and other veggies in 2011, plus another $6 million of flora products such as bulbs, cut flowers and live plants.

Bedding plants have higher profit margins, but crops such as cut flowers require a much higher investment than vegetables, he said.

There are also lots of opportunities for greenhouse production of tomatoes, peppers and exotic vegetables, Mohyuddin Mirza, a consultant and director with the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association.

“Alberta is quite unique, we have more cucumbers than tomatoes and peppers,” he said.

Cucumbers are attractive because it’s a fast-growing crop, but Alberta is nearly self-sufficient now, said Mirza, who suggested mini-greens and sprouts as a fast-growing alternative.

Greenhouses are also changing, he said, noting more tempered glass is being used because it can better withstand hail.

More growers are also using heat pipes, energy curtains, and triple polycarbonate — as the latter is less expensive than double acrylic. There’s high wire hanging for cucumbers and along with tomatoes and peppers are mostly grown in troughs now.

Growing mediums have also seen constant change. Recently, coco fibre has been popular, but “supplies are dangerously low,” said Mirza, predicting biochar, which is 25 per cent wood chips and 75 per cent biosolids, will be more popular going forward.

Growers also have to keep up with regulatory changes, many of which deal with water quality, and changing consumer preferences. Consumers want to know more about how their food is produced and an informative website is becoming a must, he said.

“The trust factor with your customer has to be there,” he said.

Keeping up with the trends in today’s food market is a challenge and what’s true today may change tomorrow, said Mirza.

“Just be prepared for the possibilities,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to make a change.”

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