Ontario’s agricultural landscape has gone industrial as big box, high-tech greenhouses, impervious to seasons, weeds and weather, replace field crops. How food grows on…
by Ray Ford
photography by Evan Dion
Outside the fumes from Inco’s superstack blend into an overcast sky, and the restive summer atmosphere is limbering up for a thunderstorm. But here beneath two layers of six-millimetre plastic, Don Blais is tending his own private Eden. “I just love the green and the smell of growing things. You see how nice and clean and beautiful it is. It’s absolutely gorgeous,” the Sudbury-area greenhouse grower says, kneeling to clip an infant cucumber plant onto twine suspended from an overhead wire. The plants seem frail and vulnerable, with their 20-centimetre stalks, their roots fed and watered by a network of tubes. But in a week, they will have grown by 30 centimetres. In less than a month, long English cucumbers will be ripening in the muggy, 45 C afternoons beneath the plastic. Even after four years in the business, Blais still marvels at the fertility, the powerful life force contained and fostered inside the greenhouse.
As a farmer myself, I share Blais’s enthusiasm. This plastic-bubble world with its earthy, rainfall scent and heavy, warm air is far removed from my domain of muddy rubber boots, bawling ewes and electric fencing. Even Blais’s optimism is in striking contrast to the volatile mix of anger and desperation that fuelled farm rallies this past spring, or the broader sense of resignation that hangs over most of rural Ontario. Maybe that is because the greenhouse sector has, until recently, been on the sunny side of Canadian agriculture. During the 1990s, Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable sector increased from 160 hectares to 400 hectares, pushing tomato, cucumber and pepper production to almost $400 million last year — more than $1.1 billion if you include greenhouse flowers and plants.
The result has been a sort of crystalline rural sprawl over the deep soils of the Niagara region and Essex County, where immigrant families first built greenhouses to augment their market gardens. Now Essex features the continent’s largest concentration of greenhouses: more than 500 hectares of glass and plastic. At night, the pinkish orange glow of grow lights vies with the glare from Windsor and Detroit. “You can quite clearly see the greenhouse glow from Pelee Island,” says Phil Roberts, president of the Essex County Field Naturalists.
In Niagara, greenhouse production has displaced the peninsula’s iconic peach and grape crops, at least in economic terms. “When you drive through the Niagara Peninsula, everyone sees vineyards and peach trees and thinks of grapes and wine,” says Tony Thompson, the Niagara Economic Development Corporation’s horticultural business consultant. “But the farm gate value of everything Niagara farmers produce is $511 million a year. Out of that, 42 percent comes out of greenhouses. Grapes are 9.8 percent.”
The staggering thing is that Ontario’s greenhouse production comes from just over 1,000 hectares, or about 2,500 football fields. That may sound vast, but for farmers it amounts to a single good-sized prairie grain farm. Dusty outside farmers just cannot compete with greenhouse growers when it comes to productivity. During an industry meeting last year, the general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers compared economic returns from an acre of corn and an acre of greenhouse vegetables. They differed by a factor of 1,000: where the sodbuster might bring in $300 to $600 per acre, his glassed-in counterpart might realize $300,000 to $600,000. True, those estimates were based on 2005 numbers, and margins have tightened since. Greenhouse growers also have much higher costs: Statistics Canada reports greenhouse growers spent about $1.96 billion to bring in $2.15 billion. Still, any kind of profit would leave most corn farmers envious. When corn prices fell 23 percent last year, Ontario farmers couldn’t sell their corn for the $3-plus a bushel it cost to grow it.
Growing food — like writing or teaching — is one of those jobs that only looks simple. Any kind of farming requires hefty investments in technology, real estate and know-how. Once you have specialized in one area of agriculture, you are unlikely to rewire your brain and pony up the $1 million or so it takes to set up a half-hectare state-of-the-art greenhouse. But such was the pull of greenhouse growing during the 1990s that even outdoor farmers were anxious to try growing under glass.
Ed Feenstra was keeping his Dunnville farm alive by working at a local greenhouse. “I loved being in the barn and out in the fields, but pig prices were all over the place,” he says. “I thought, ‘What am I doing working all day in the greenhouse and trying to run my farm at night? It’s going to kill me.’ So we decided to let the farm go.” Today he’s growing oriental lilies in a 3,150-square-metre greenhouse. “It’s the next best thing to agriculture,” he says. “It’s independence and country living.”
Farther west, in St. Thomas, Jack Vanderkooy sold his dairy cows and entered the greenhouse business, first growing tomatoes and now producing young plants for other growers. “It’s been a good change,” he says. “On the dairy farm, at the end of the year I seemed to have nothing left to reinvest. But with hydroponic tomatoes, we actually had 10 percent of our revenues we could put away for further investment and expansion.”
Unlike most Canadians, farmers still wrest a living from the environment. We feel the push and pull of weather, work with birth and death, and try to tilt the odds in our favour with diesel fuel, fertilizers and technology. But given the vagaries of the weather, livestock and one’s own limitations, things inevitably go awry: hay is ruined in a summer downpour; tangled twin lambs die despite the efforts of their labouring mother. You find yourself, like generations of farmers before you, wishing you could control the rain, deflect the frost, attend every troubled birth.
Now greenhouse growers are close to realizing the age-old dream of a farm without frosts or hail, of a field with predictable rains and a crop that can be attended, almost manicured. I visited Don Blais’s greenhouse not just to marvel at the greenery, but to see whether this kind of farming — high-tech, capital intensive, highly productive — really is the better way: better for the grower, better for the consumer, and better for the earth. Having put a chicken in every pot, industrial agriculture is now putting a salad in every bowl.
When the Roman emperor Tiberius demanded a year-round supply of cucumbers, his gardener’s instinct for self-preservation became the mother of invention. He placated the emperor by growing cukes under translucent slabs of mica, warming and fertilizing the vines with composted manure. Cosseted by imperial decree, the cucumber became the first greenhouse vegetable.
Today’s greenhouse cucumber is vastly different than the ones the Romans enjoyed soaked in wine. By the 19th century, growers had selected varieties that could produce fruit without pollination — a cucumber that not only thrived in a greenhouse environment, but because it was seedless it had more cachet than the seed-filled outdoor varieties. More modern varieties are seedless whether pollinating bees are present or not because they lack male flowers. Their hybrid vigour makes them extremely productive if not reproductive. “Last year one got left behind for a few days, and it was a torpedo. It had to have been 24 inches long and the girth was like this,” Blais says, forming a 10-centimetre circle with his hands.
Greenhouses have changed at least as much as the produce grown in them. As in Roman times, the structure allows sunlight in and holds the warmth by trapping radiant heat. But mica gave way to greased paper, then glass, acrylic and plastic. (Glass is again the industry favourite, in part because plastic has to be replaced every few years.) Except for a few organic growers who continue to fertilize with manure, greenhouse operators mix fertilizers into their irrigation water. In a twist on the “greenhouse effect,” some growers enhance plant growth by piping in carbon dioxide from their heating systems.
To avoid problems with pests and diseases and gain more control over plant nutrients, most vegetable growers use a hydroponic approach, replacing soil with a sterile, sponge-like “growth medium” — typically rock wool, a sort of candy floss spun from volcanic rock, or a substitute made from coconut husks. Plants grow with their vines attached to twine, their fruit suspended for more even sun exposure. Tomato vines wind more than 10 metres, while peppers reach 3.5 metres toward the ceiling. Bumblebees housed in cardboard hives flit among the blossoms and pollinate the crops.
An electronic consul, the Programmable Logic Controller, orchestrates every aspect of the environment. It oversees humidity, temperature, light, carbon dioxide and moisture levels. It opens vents, switches on lights when the sun fades, rolls down insulating “energy curtains” and irrigates the crop.
Today we can all eat like Tiberius, demanding perfect-looking fruit and vegetables and paying scant regard to season or distance. “What’s grown here in Ontario is probably the highest quality, safest food you’re going to get anywhere in the world,” says Cole Cacciavillani, chair of the Ontario Greenhouse Alliance and son of a pioneering Leamington grower.
But our imperial diet comes with hefty environmental costs in water, waste and energy. Greenhouses in Leamington and nearby Kingsville draw about 6.36 billion litres a year from the municipal water system, or about 35 percent of the region’s overall water demand. Because plants do not use all the water, Ontario’s agriculture ministry estimates a typical one-hectare tomato greenhouse could leach as much as 7.5 tonnes of fertilizer salts and 4,000 cubic metres of irrigation water into the ground annually. The need to replace plastic greenhouse covers means one Leamington-area recycling firm handles up to 204 tonnes of spent plastic a year. Rock wool needs to be replaced too, and if it was all tossed out at once, the pile would fill 83 transport trucks. Greenhouses are also big energy users, but they are hardly the only source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. One British study found that eight tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions were emitted just to grow, process, ship and cook the food that feeds a family of four for a year.