Did you know that cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and green beans can grow more than eight feet in the air? And that, for a greenhouse, a power outage is much more dangerous in the summer than the winter? That’s because a missed automatic watering in the summer is far more detrimental to greenhouse plants than a gradual drop in temperature.
These are just a few of the fascinating things I learned while touring SunTech Greenhouses during a recent farm writers’ tour near Ottawa, Ont.
SunTech is a 4.4 acre, family-run greenhouse, located just minutes south of Ottawa in the very pretty Manotick. Our tour host and owner of SunTech, Bob Mitchell, is a former dairy farmer and cash cropper who, in 1999, changed gears from 1,100 acres of production to just 2.2 in an effort to downsize. By the time he harvested his first tomato, he was over $2 million in debt. “That’s one expensive tomato,” a farm writer quipped at that factoid. “I felt like the family should all share it,” he answered, “but my kids didn’t even like tomatoes!”
Six years later, Bob and his family expanded the business, adding two more acres of greenhouse space, and began to diversify away from just beefsteak tomatoes and started into cherry tomatoes, snacking peppers, cucumbers and green beans.
The company is now a thriving, locally-focused operation servicing several Ottawa supermarkets. The current success is not without its challenges, however. Margins on fresh produce can be razor thin, and prices are set by Mexican production — where what a Canadian greenhouse spends on labour in an hour, a Mexican greenhouse spends in a day. Mitchell’s SunTech has stayed competitive not by being a low-cost producer, but by using technology and automation wherever they can, focusing on high-taste, high-value products aimed at the snacking market, and by staying close to home.
“If I start shipping outside of Ottawa or eastern Ontario, it’s a commodity, not a premium product anymore,” Mitchell says. Competing in a commodity market is part of why he’s not a cash cropper any more.
Fully automated watering, lighting and temperature control is a must in greenhouse production, as is adapting and adopting new technology. Most recently, Mitchell has added LED lights to the snacking cucumber and tomato greenhouse, thanks in part to support from Farm Credit Canada.
These low-heat, high-efficiency lights kick on two hours ahead of sunrise, stretching the growing day. While it’s been a significant cost to set up, Mitchell says production of cucumbers has doubled (though hasn’t nearly had the same impact on tomatoes) and the electricity bill to date has actually come in under budget. The lights also make the greenhouses glow pink — a sight to see if you’re ever driving by in the wee hours of the morning.
Like any agriculture production system, pests can be an issue. Mitchell says they always reach for biocontrol options first. While on the tour, I noticed millions of tiny white flies covering a few rows of tomatoes. Mitchell explained that they use a predator, released through cards attached to the plants, to parasitize the white fly. It wasn’t working as well as he liked, but they were continuing to release more predators to try and get the problem under control.
The biggest challenge to greenhouse production is keeping costs down — while watering and lighting may be automated, harvest and packaging is all manual work. Migrant workers are a key part of keeping these greenhouses running. Of a staff of about 30, nine are migrant workers from Mexico. The workers want 70 hours per week; they’re here to work, Mitchell says.
As for what’s next, Mitchell is happy to be busy, fine-tuning production and making the most of new technology. He says he’s having much more fun farming than he did as a dairyman and cash cropper. Still, he does see a time when he’ll begin doing more of what he wants to do versus what he has to do, but don’t you dare call it retirement. As he said, his own mother only just “retired” well into her 80s, even after complaining about her own parents not slowing down in their 70s.
“I’ll never be bored,” he says, when asked what he likes most about greenhouse production. “It’s interesting work, and there’s always more to learn.”