Growers in Glass Houses

Paul de Jonge and his wife Hilda planted the seeds for a new future in the mid-1990s when they purchased a farm in the prairied landscape of southern Alberta.

An accountant by trade, de Jonge was also a fledgling market-gardener and in 1996 they built a small backyard greenhouse to grow peppers on their plot of land east of Lethbridge, a city of more than 100,000 people that’s a little over 100 kilometres from the Canada-United States border.

The greenhouse addition was good for business. Good enough, in fact, that de Jonge decided to expand in 2000. The expansion was more than just the number of crops produced by the greenhouse, but also into a full-time farming operation.

“I was up against second- and third-generation growers who have a wealth of knowledge,” he says, “and I was a self-taught green bee who’d never gone to horticultural school.”

With the expansion, de Jonge was betting there would always be an appetite for fresh, locally grown produce — and the bet paid off. They began growing cucumbers and tomatoes, and opened an on-site cafe. Today, Broxburn Vegetables is one of the largest broccoli suppliers in Alberta.

A new crop of commercial growers is now placing the same bet. Whole Leaf, for example, has an 11-acre greenhouse near Coaldale, a town just 20 kilometres east of Lethbridge, that employs 110 people and grows more than 16 million heads of lettuce annually. Whole Leaf recently signed a deal to be the exclusive lettuce supplier for all 384 Wendy’s Canada locations.

“Our company had a vision that we could grow better lettuce and do it in our own backyard in southern Alberta,” says Rindi Bristol, senior director at Whole Leaf.

Irrigation using high-quality water is one of the special ingredients that makes Alberta’s agriculture sector so successful. Photo by Imaginegolf.

There are obvious upsides to greenhouse farming. Produce can be grown in greenhouses all year and they provide a temperature-controlled environment that protects against pests, rapid temperature changes and inclement weather. Greenhouses are expandable and can be scaled in phases (like Broxburn Vegetables and Whole Leaf) and they are not a big draw on utilities — especially in southern Alberta, a region that receives more consistent hours of sunshine than anywhere in Canada, while solar power can help offset energy costs and supply energy through the winter.

With automation the facilities can run 24 hours a day and they require less land than a traditional farm for similar output. Broxburn’s greenhouse sits on 3 acres of land, while Whole Leaf’s facility spans 615 acres.

“Greenhouses have been around for quite a while,” says Martin Ebel, economic development officer with Lethbridge County. “But viable greenhouse production on an industrial scale, producing high-quality, safe, good food and maximizing the productivity of a given piece of land, I think we’re just starting to see that take off here.”

The total greenhouse area in Alberta continues to rise and while Alberta is still a net importer of greenhouse produce, its exports increased from $790,042 in 2013 to $4,736,000 in 2017.

“The technology is getting to the point where you can scale up and commercialize these kinds of scientific, highly advanced automated greenhouses, and you can outcompete growing it overseas.” —Peter Casurella, executive director of SouthGrow Regional Initiative

“Commercial greenhouses continue to be one of the best economic opportunities down here in southern Alberta,” says Peter Casurella, executive director of SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development alliance serving 28 communities across south central Alberta.

Alberta has the fourth highest number of greenhouses in Canada and is uniquely positioned to build on this market. At least 5.5 million people are within a day’s drive from southern Alberta, the region’s transportation and logistics are firstrate, and the St. Mary River Irrigation District – the largest of its kind in Canada – provides clean, high-quality water.

There are world-class agricultural research institutions like Olds College and the University of Lethbridge, as well as organizations like SouthGrow, which partnered with more than 30 industry associations to establish Canada’s Premier Food Corridor (CPFC). The CPFC is used to promote southern Alberta as a “cluster” for agricultural expertise, similar to how Silicon Valley is promoted for tech development in California.

“Only in the last 10 years has the cost equation started to really shift,” says Casurella. “The technology is getting to the point where you can scale up and commercialize these kinds of scientific, highly advanced automated greenhouses, and you can out-compete growing it overseas. If you can get the price within spitting distance of competitors overseas, predictability starts to become a really attractive factor.”

All these advantageous elements await industrious greenhouse growers, whether the size of Broxburn Vegetables or Whole Leaf.

“When you have backing from a brand like Wendy’s that has quality at the forefront of their business in all their ingredients, the future for commercial greenhouses in southern Alberta, in Western Canada, and in Canada in general, is very bright,” says Whole Leaf’s Bristol.