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Premier Peckford's pickle palace

Newfoundland's hydroponic cucumber operation is turning into an expensive joke in 1988.

Hydroponic cucumbers were going to be Newfoundland's economic saviour

A peek inside the Sprung greenhouse in Mount Pearl, N.L. in 1988. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

It was supposed to be a miracle technology that would grow Newfoundland's economy into prosperity; an enormous space-age greenhouse with cucumbers sprouting to full size in only six days.

Newfoundland's hydroponic cucumber operation is turning into an expensive joke in 1988. 2:17

"Holy smokes — let Newfoundland be first in something!" exclaimed Premier Brian Peckford when he first saw the hydroponic technology developed by greenhouse operator Philip Sprung. 

But the dream of supplying all of Newfoundland's cucumbers — fuelled by more than $13 million in taxpayers' money — seemed to be dying on the vine. Construction took longer than expected. Then cucumbers from outside Newfoundland flooded the market so Sprung had to sell his scientific marvels for half the cost of production.

Not much appetite for cucumbers

Six days after flowering, a large cucumber was said to be ready for harvest at Sprung's greenhouse. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

He still couldn't sell all the cucumbers — Newfoundlanders only ate half a cucumber per capita per year in 1988 — so cows ended up munching the surplus.

Even though the fate of the enterprise in Mount Pearl looked grim, Peckford stood firm in the face of naysayers. "There'll be cucumbers over all kinds of people's faces," he declared.

In the end, the province pulled the plug in 1989 after repeated injections of emergency funds. Its total investment topped $22 million — double the original contribution. Enviroponics then declared bankruptcy and Newfoundland sold the facility to another company for $1.

An expensive mistake 

A total of about 800,000 cucumbers was produced. The cost to taxpayers per cucumber was $27.50, compared to 50 cents for cucumbers produced out of province and sold in Newfoundland grocery stores.

Even after selling it cucumbers for less than the cost of production, the Sprung greenhouse still had surplus and the cucumbers became fodder for farm animals. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

The Liberal government elected in Newfoundland after Peckford's retirement appointed a royal commission to probe the cucumber affair. The resulting report called the investment "an improper expenditure of public funds."

Government should leave such enterprises, the report said, to "those who have the required expertise and the appropriate capital."

The company that bought the bankrupt greenhouse for $1 soon shut it down, complaining that it cost $60,000 a week just to power its huge grow lights.

The greenhouse later hosted a number of enterprises including a driving range.

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