Kitchener-Waterloo

Mobile greenhouse showcases Ontario's indoor crops

This summer a mobile squad of cucumbers, tomatoes and green peppers have been travelling throughout Ontario and the United States with the objective of teaching the general public about greenhouse produce.
NatureFresh Farms mobile greenhouse travels the U.S. and Canada promoting the commercial greenhouse crops industry. (NatureFresh Farms)

This summer, a mobile squad of cucumbers, tomatoes and green peppers have been travelling throughout Ontario and the United States with the objective of teaching the general public about greenhouse produce.

The one-of-a-kind roaming Greenhouse Education Centre is an initiative of NatureFresh, a Leamington, Ont., produce company that started in the greenhouse growing business in 1999.

Travelling from April to September, the educational unit – a 38-ft. trailer towed by a truck – is essentially a miniature version of a regular greenhouse. It's got a busy schedule of over 100 dates that showcase how produce is grown.

Though you've likely eaten more greenhouse produce than you might know, the balance of produce in Ontario is still grown outside. 

For example, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, in total in Ontario there are about 14,000 acres of tomatoes grown in fields, compared to approximately 1,000 acres of tomatoes grown in greenhouses.

Industry is growing

Greenhouse produce is, however, a growing industry, says Herman Fehr, manager of the NatureFresh mobile greenhouse.

"A lot of produce in grocery stores is greenhouse-grown, especially in the winter. It's an efficient way to grow. With the mobile education centre, people can see the full process of greenhouse growing from start to finish," Fehr said.

The mobile greenhouse has been in operation for three years and visits retail food outlets, summer camps and schools.

The company grows varieties of bell peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes in about 130 acres of greenhouses in Leamington, with 45 acres of tomato greenhouses in Delta, Ohio. The company is one of the largest greenhouse bell pepper growers in North America.

Sunset Produce, located in Kingsville, Ont., is another major greenhouse grower and has been around for six decades. In Waterloo region, Elmira's Own grows vine-ripened greenhouse tomatoes.

High yields, more energy, short distance

As a farming method, greenhouse production can yield as much as 14 times more tomatoes than conventional farming.

The closed-loop growing system of greenhouse facilities (demonstrated in the NatureFresh mobile greenhouse) saves water and requires less fertilizer and pesticides. They grow produce in a modified hydroponic system of recycled coconut fibre, and the mobile facility also has a bumblebee ecosystem, pollinators being an important – and at-risk – component to the growing cycle.

Compared to the five-month growing season of conventional farming, greenhouses have a stable environment that allows the producer to control the temperature and protect plants from harsh precipitation and damaging insects. It is a labour and energy intense process; however, the yields and quality of produce are also high, and transportation to local markets are shorter – much shorter than produce that travels here from the Central Valley of California.

More and more "indoor farms" are popping up in Europe and North America as communities face increasing numbers of retiring farmers, shrinking farmland, increasing costs, depleting soil and changing weather patterns. In Newark, New Jersey, AeroFarms, a "vertical farm," opened in an abandoned urban steel mill in 2015 and produces more than 1,000 tons of greens annually from its 70,000 sq.-ft. operation.

Food security

Whether greenhouse goods are the result of farming or "manufacturing," the reality is that we need to produce a lot of food as securely and inexpensively as possible, as populations continue to grow around the world.

Consumers get the benefit of a year-long supply of local produce grown by Ontario companies. Some of the input costs aside, the greenhouse environment is "a much more efficient way to grow," that gives customers good quality produce and minimizes the variables of what conventional farming faces, said Fehr. 

"In a field, you're exposed to disease and pests and general environmental factors that a greenhouse grower really doesn't have to worry about."

You can visit the NatureFresh mobile greenhouse at Zehrs at 450 Erb Street West, Waterloo on Saturday, August 26, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There's more information available at www.naturefresh.ca.


More food stories from Andrew Coppolino

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.

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