Innovation the key in the world of greenhouses

With hints of spring in the air, the urge to get in the dirt awakens in farmers and gardeners alike.

With hints of spring in the air, the urge to get in the dirt awakens in farmers and gardeners alike.

That means it’s nearly go time for greenhouse owners who have got the jump on all of us and have been planting and watering and nurturing in a controlled environment, to be ready for the May long weekend rush.

But more than bedding plants, we have some greenhouse innovators in Central Alberta like the Doef family and all the Pik n Pak growers, who are starting to be able to provide fresh produce year round.

My own view of the greenhouse world has been expanded widely over the last month after speaking with several visionaries and game-changers in the business.

At the Pacific Ag Show in Abbotsford, I saw more about technologies such as the use of diffused glass and LED lighting mid-way up the plants. But I also had an interesting discussion with Timothy Kendrick of BW Global Structures.

He’s a big-picture thinker who looks at greenhouse growth in a global food production context.

Survivability of greenhouse structures has always been a challenge in areas where wind, hail, snowload or other storms can cause great damage. Kendrick believes BW Global has improved those odds with new poly-structure options.

As well, they’re looking at creating “sealed” systems, which would allow for the recapture of water lost, in such situations as cooling of greenhouses in Saudi Arabia’s scorching temperatures. And in working with a pair of Israeli companies, they’re finding such high-diffusion coverings can make the whole surface area of the greenhouse a solar collector. By providing bursts of light all over, there’s not as much leaf shading, and plants can become more productive.

Their research work at the Agriculture Centre of Excellence in B.C. has already showed some impressive differences, with bigger tomato girths, and more peppers produced because bottom leaves weren’t lost.

Kendrick insists the technology now enables them to accommodate extreme environments, whether it’s the tropics side or the circumpolar side.

“I’m from Saskatchewan, so being able to grow in minus-40 degree weather without having terribly high energy costs is a huge advantage, not only for us, but for the world in general,” he stated. “We are combining systems too. We’ve got an aquaculture client in Alberta looking to grow strawberries, locally, all year round.”

Then I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with Robert Colangelo of Green Sense Farms near Chicago. That’s the largest indoor vertical farm in the U.S., utilizing a series of towers and hydroponic tubs, with LED lighting, to produce food in a warehouse.

“By being able to grow indoors and control our climate we’re able to put these farms anywhere, so we’re in the process of putting them right at distribution centers,” explained Colangelo.

He believes that’s key to removing some of the timely and pricey steps usually necessary in getting greens from the field to the grocery store

“Once produce is cut, it starts dying, losing its nutrition and flavour, and it has increased costs because it’s being transported. By putting our farms right at the distribution centres, the produce is fresher, more nutritious and cheaper because it doesn’t have to travel all those miles.”

Colangelo acknowledges such growing technology will never replace field crops or even traditional greenhouse crops like tomatoes or cucumbers. But he sees it as ideal for the leafy greens, culinary herbs and lettuces they’re already growing this way.

This is not the stuff of “someday in the future.” It’s happening here and now.

Just last year, Global News carried the story of Affinor Growers announcing a year-round strawberry-growing greenhouse facility being built near Clavet, Sask. More recently, Global profiled two Olds College horticulture graduates who’d set up an aquaponic greenhouse in central Saskatchewan. Campbell Greenhouses produce a variety of greens by utilizing the waste from their fish farm.

Controlled environment agriculture may change our idea of growing food. The huge cost and access to land is often pinpointed as one of the barriers in agriculture, especially for young people getting involved. Perhaps this will be one of the ways we can produce more food on less land, even in harsh climates, around the world.

Timothy Kendrick sees potential for such production as exciting.

“The willingness to think differently about things is key,” he noted.

“We’ve got some very intelligent and very sophisticated farmers that have been a third-generation grower. What I would say to them and to young people coming through this is be willing to think differently. Be willing to abandon the, ‘This is the way my grandfather did, and my father did it,’ to really take a look at what is being presented to us environmentally and economically.”

From the News and Notes file, the Alberta Federation of Agriculture is pleased to be able to access $1.3 million in federal Growing Forward 2 support for its research into a new simulation model for overland flooding and drought. It is work many people across the country, not only in agriculture, will be watching.

With the input of comprehensive data, the complex model should provide the numbers needed to lead to some new insurance options for managing weather-related risks.

Also, Olds College celebrates the opening of the expanded retail meat store at its National Meat Training Centre on Saturday.

It’s part of a “unique in North America” program providing hands-on meat processing training, and if you ever want to see a person passionate about the art of meat processing, go and visit with the program’s long-time co-ordinator, Brad McLeod!

And I’ll be at tonight’s Westerner Pony Chuckwagon Tarp Auction, introducing the drivers, as businesses see who they can hook their tarps to for this summer’s racing fun. Then it’s off to the Calgary Stampede Dairy Classic, with the open Holstein show on Saturday, which is another traditional sign of spring.

Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.