Funding new research greenhouse a wise decision

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It cost a lot of tax dollars, but the Alberta government investment in a new research greenhouse facility in Brooks could prove to be a wise decision for the future survival of the industry in Alberta. This province has a couple of distinct advantages when it comes to greenhouse crop production — lots of sunshine and lots of now-cheap natural gas for the colder months. The pioneers of the greenhouse industry understood those advantages and established the beginnings of the industry in Alberta almost 100 years ago.

The industry has taken great strides forward in the past 30 years and much of that has to do with two factors — more and better greenhouse technology and plant genetics, and a steady influx of greenhouse operators and industry entrepreneurs from the Netherlands. The latter comes as no surprise, as the Dutch are longtime masters of intensive agriculture and especially greenhouse production. The Netherlands probably has the most concentrated and advanced greenhouse industry in the world, not just in production and marketing (think flowers), but in research, technology, plant genetics and innovation.

The other thing they are good at is exporting expertise either through sales and consulting, or outright immigration to set up greenhouse businesses of every kind just about everywhere in Canada. Add to that Rabobank, the giant Dutch global agriculture development bank (it’s larger than any bank in Canada), and it’s no surprise that where there are greenhouses in the world, the Dutch are usually involved directly or through financing.

Having said that it causes one to ponder what the Alberta government rationale was in creating the new research greenhouse in Brooks. Was it because of a lack of greenhouse research? I suspect not. The Dutch are probably light years ahead in research, particularly their service and ever-inventive supply companies that are forever finding ways to sell their unique products. Hopefully, the new facility will not be spending its time reinventing the wheel, which at times seems to happen with Canadian research, such as with composting and biodigesters, much of which had already been done in Europe 10 years earlier.

A positive sign as to the new facility’s credibility would be to see early alliances and collaboration with greenhouse-research operations, agencies and universities in other countries, particularly the Netherlands. Also seeing domestic and international greenhouse industry service and supply companies involved in development and testing projects at the new facility would be a good sign as to the facility’s value.

Greenhouse growers and industry associations will no doubt have considerable input into what is researched at Brooks. If not, they certainly should. Perhaps the local government along with provincial authorities could zone the area near the research facility as an exclusive greenhouse-industry development area. That might entice more production and research — tax incentives could encourage that development.

There is the reality that the greenhouse business on a global scale is extremely competitive and the new facility may have to do redundant research just to help keep our growers in the game. That’s because leading-edge research that has commercial value is not usually shared all that willingly between institutions and private companies. It may well be a race to see who comes first to complete the same research — inventions and patents, and their subsequent commercialization, are now the goal of so much research by agencies and institutions.

Greenhouse plant genetics and agronomy come to mind as the main focus of the new facility. One hopes that would involve more genetic engineering of plants, but that remains a marketing minefield for the greenhouse industry. Such great strides could be made in plant efficiencies with GE, but alas, I expect GE greenhouse plants are well into the future. Yet great leaps continue to be made in areas like biocontrol of insect pests and disease.

It’s hard to believe, but there is advanced research into greenhouse-variety plants themselves indicating through sensors when they need to be fed water and nutrients — not yet talking plants, but it’s getting amazingly close — it boggles the mind.

I expect in Alberta, research would be needed to improve labour efficiencies in greenhouses. That’s probably common to most greenhouse operations anywhere in the world facing high labour costs. One continues to see crops like garlic, ginger, green beans, and speciality vegetables coming from China in increasing quantities thanks to their cheap labour costs. It would seem big Alberta greenhouse crops like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes would be next to face Chinese competition. The only way to stay ahead of that inevitable onslaught of imports is to give Alberta greenhouse growers the technology and genetics they need to compete more efficiently. For that reason alone the new research greenhouse facility is a wise investment indeed.

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