Ontario’s greenhouse growers ready for big season

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Isaak Fast, head grower and general manager of Pure Hot House Foods Inc.’s Leamington greenhouse, attends to tomato plants. A new crop of more than 265,000 plants was delivered to the facility in early January, says Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer. ( Courtesy Pure Hot House Foods Inc. )

Greenhouse growers in Ontario are gearing up for what they hope will be another stellar season, said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Leamington-based Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association.

Some operators with heated, well-lit facilities produce nearly year-round, but others will start picking in late winter, “while the snow is flying,” Sbrocchi said.

Cucumbers are the first crop to come off, probably the second or third week of February. Tomatoes will follow in mid-March, and bell peppers will get underway by the end of March.

Weather has been relatively mild, grower-shippers say.

Mastronardi Produce Ltd., Kingsville, Ontario, should have an “excellent” crop this year, but that’s not really a function of the weather, said Julia Shreve, director of marketing for brand and innovation.

“The quality of our crops is really more a function of how we manage them versus a factor of the weather,” she said.

Even with the warm weather, there never is enough sunlight at this time of year, Shreve said.

“We are grateful for our extensive network of high-tech lit acres,” she said.

The company, which markets the Sunset brand, has expanded its acreage for specialty tomatoes as demand continues to increase for those items, she said, and there’s “lots of potential for continued growth.”

A new crop of more than 265,000 plants was delivered to Pure Hot House Foods Inc. in Leamington in early January, said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer.

The company started picking its first crop of long English cucumbers in early February. 

“Pure Flavor continues to expand its family of growers across all regions each season to ensure a consistent supply,” Veillon said.

And the company’s product offerings continue to increase season over season to meet surging retail and foodservice demand, he added.

The Pure Flavor brand includes several kinds of conventional and organic tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

The company even offers purple baby eggplant, he said.

When crops are grown in a protected culture, Veillon said, “We can control 100% of the growing process to ensure the plants produce a consistent product, regardless of the season.” 

AMCO Produce, Leamington, expects a good crop of beefsteak tomatoes, seedless cucumbers and bell peppers as the season gets underway, said Paul Arrowsmith, sales manager.

“We grow tomatoes-on-the-vine and seedless cucumbers all year round under lights,” he added.

The 35-year-old company has more than 100 acres of greenhouse product.

Arrowsmith said U.S. consumers seem to recognize the quality of Canadian-grown greenhouse products.

Volume at AMCO is expected to be up 10% to 15% this year.

“We’re growing,” Arrowsmith said.

Red Sun Farms in Kingsville has announced its newest venture between Jim DiMenna, president of Red Sun Farms, and Jeremy Capussi, acting managing director/operations coordinator and development for JC Fresh: Red Sun Farms Ontario LP.

“The new company will be constructing its first 27 acres of high-tech greenhouses in Kingsville,” said Leona Neill, director of marketing and packaging for Red Sun Farms.

“This is an exciting time at Red Sun Farms as we embark upon this new partnership to meet the growing demands of our customers for quality, flavor and year-round availability,” DiMenna said.

Red Sun Farms is the largest vertically integrated North American greenhouse grower, Neill said.

Ontario has approximately 3,000 acres of greenhouses about equally divided among tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers, Sbrocchi said.

He expects to see an additional 350 acres or so within the next couple of years.

When the additional acreage will come into play is difficult to predict because the availability of work crews and materials used to build greenhouses has tightened since Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, he said.

Expansion of some vegetable greenhouses has been put on hold until builders can catch up.

One builder told a prospective customer that it could be four or five years before he could begin work on a new greenhouse, Sbrocchi said.

The greenhouse vegetable industry expected a 9% growth rate last year, he said, but that figure ended up at less than 2%.

“Nobody really knows where cannabis is going,” Sbrocchi said, but he doesn’t anticipate a drop in vegetable production.

“The demand is there. There’s more growth needed,” he said. “Protected agriculture is the farming of the future.” 

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