Greenhouse acreage is expanding in Canada’s Ontario province, but not all the expansion is targeted for fresh produce.
“We expected about a 9.4% increase in total acreage this year, which would have been substantial,” said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of Leamington-based Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.
The group has about 220 grower members. About 30 marketers sell Ontario greenhouse vegetables, he said.
For 2018, Sbrocchi estimated Ontario greenhouse vegetable acreage is near 3,000 acres, before the projected 9% to 10% increase.
As of 2016, tomato acreage totaled 36.5% of total greenhouse acreage, with about 34.9% for peppers and 28.6% of greenhouse area devoted to cucumbers.
Some amount of this year’s increase in Ontario greenhouse acreage is expected to be devoted to cannabis cultivation, he said.
The projected increase in total greenhouse acreage comes on the heels of 6.5% to 7% average acreage gains the previous five years or so, Sbrocchi said.
Statistics Canada reports that Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable and fruit acreage in 2015, the most recent year reported by the government, tallied 31.7 million square feet, up from 30.2 million square feet in 2014 and 25.9 million square feet in 2013.
For 2018, the increase for Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable acreage may only equal 1% to 2% after the glass house acreage devoted to cannabis is accounted for, Sbrocchi said.
The exact magnitude of the increase won’t be known until the projects associated with cannabis are announced, he said.
Additional investments in Ontario greenhouse vegetable acreage are expected in the next three to five years, he said. The capacity needed for cannabis cultivation may be mostly met, however, Sbrocchi said.
Stuart Horst, co-owner of Elmira’s Own Produce Ltd. Elmira, Ontario, said the jury is still out on how marijuana cultivation may affect the greenhouse vegetable industry in Ontario. He said the shift could leave some opportunity for others to fill market demand.
Higher costs are a fact of life for growers.
Ontario’s minimum wage jumped from $11.40 per hour last year to $14 this year and will be $15 per hour as of Jan. 1, 2019. The industry also has costs associated with its cap-and-trade carbon tax system.
On the other hand, Sbrocchi said that those costs will create incentives to do business more efficiently, to invest in automation and other technologies that will help growers compete.
“The industry from the get-go has shown a lot of resilience and when the chips are down they figure it out,” he said.
Looking ahead, Sbrocchi thinks covered/protected agriculture will be a big part of the future produce supply chain.
“You are getting to see greater expansion in things like berries, lettuces and other crops when you start to factor in the whole carbon footprint and transportation costs,” he said.
Some of the greenhouses that formerly grew floral products in Niagara region in Ontario have moved into cannabis production, said Michael Brownbridge, research director for horticultural production Vineland Station, Ontario-based Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.
That could leave room in the market for additional investment in floriculture, he said.
Ontario growers are diversifying within peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, offering more specialty varieties, particularly for tomatoes.
In addition, there is growth in greenhouse lettuce production using the floating raft system. Beans and herbs have also seen an increase in interest.
Winter and spring strawberry production is also attracting interest by greenhouse growers, he said.
Greenhouse operators are looking at ways to automate and save labor and those efforts have mostly been focused on sorting activities.
“There is a very strong interest and investment in the larger greenhouses in some sort of automation, but it is little hard to get anything that does crop work,” he said.
Systems that automate packing operations are being researched for mini cucumbers, he said.
“The future for automation looks promising in the greenhouses,” he said.