KINGSVILLE, Ontario — When frigid conditions hit during late January, some Ontario greenhouse operators got service interruption notices from their natural gas suppliers for the first time in more than a decade.
In most cases the notice simply meant the greenhouses had to switch to an alternate energy source to keep their freshly planted tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers warm enough.
For some, the only alternative was heating oil, which is two to three times as expensive as natural gas, said Carl Mastronardi, owner and president of Del Fresco Produce.
“It just says until ‘further notice,’” said Mastronardi, referring to the gas company notice. “They’ve got to make sure the homes and schools and hospitals have enough.”
Mastronardi is one of the greenhouse operators who have more than one option in such a situation. He can use heating oil if he has to, but he can also burn biomass materials such as wood chips.
Greenhouse operations owned by Erie James Ltd., Leamington, and Mucci Farms and Mastronardi Produce Ltd. also have biomass burners, as do numerous other growers.
Alternative energy sources are becoming more noticeable in the area along the north shore of Lake Erie, which has the largest concentration of greenhouses in North America.
One reason so many growers are located near here and Leamington is because the region gets more hours of sun annually than any other place in Canada.
That abundance of sunshine soon will help greenhouses such as those operated at Mor Gro Farms, keep costs down while reducing the company’s carbon footprint.
Mor Gro Farms owns just less than 50 acres of greenhouses and primarily grows tomatoes. The company is in the process of installing a solar panel array to help cut utility costs and reduce its carbon footprint.
“There were a lot of government regulations and limited space on the grid,” said Tom Trojniak, marketing manager at Mor Gro, which markets its produce under the Smarty Brand label.
But David Pereira, sales manager, said the company’s commitment to energy alternatives was too strong to let details stop them.
“We want to be the greenest greenhouse in North America,” Pereira said, adding that Mor Gro can already use biomass fuels to power its burner when necessary.
Peter Quiring, founder and chief executive officer of Nature Fresh Farms, Leamington, shares Pereira’s dream.
Before going into the growing business, Quiring was a greenhouse designer and builder and was known for innovative concepts that could increase sustainability and decrease energy consumption.
Now, with 130 greenhouse acres under Nature Fresh ownership, Quiring strives to continue innovating.
“We believe it’s important for the high-tech greenhouse industry to continue to be profitable so it can become even more innovative,” Quiring said.
In addition to alternatives such as biomass-burning boilers Nature Fresh uses high-tech heating and cooling systems. Quiring estimates the company’s costs would be as much as 30% higher if he used old technologies still in operation at some greenhouses.
But saving money is not Quiring’s only priority. He wants his industry to leave the planet in better shape than it is now.
“Making the best use of the water we need to operate is of more importance to us than lower costs of production,” Quiring said, adding that 2012 marked the first year that Nature Fresh discharged zero water from its greenhouse operations into the waste water treatment system in Leamington.