Pure Hothouse cucumber plants in early January. ( Courtesy Pure Hothouse Foods )

Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable production will start ramping up in mid-February and continue to accelerate through the spring.

Carl Mastronardi, president of Kingsville, Ontario-based DelFrescoPure, said the firm was already picking mini cucumbers and strawberries in late January. 

Industry-wide, he said there is an increasing amount of high-pressure sodium lights being installed in greenhouses, which lengthens the harvest season.

“If you are intent on growing tomatoes in the wintertime — if you’re in town growing tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, or anything else — you need the high-pressure sodium lights in the winter time,” he said.

Canadian production of seedless cucumbers (both long English and mini cucumbers) will start with volume in mid-February and continue strengthening in production well into the spring, said Matt Mastronardi, executive vice president of Leamington, Ontario-based Pure Hothouse Foods, which markets the Pure Flavor brand.

Compared with a year ago, Matt Mastronardi said that central Mexican greenhouse operations experienced darker than usual weather and lighter volume in late November and December. 
Supplies should be sufficient as Canadian volume begins to increase in the weeks ahead, he said.

Tomatoes, bell peppers and baby eggplants will start in Canada in mid-March/early April and continue to ramp up volume heading into the spring, Matt Mastronardi said.

Winter greenhouse production was held down by lengthy cloud cover and persistent low light levels in Mexican growing regions, said Harold Paivarinta, senior director sales and business development for Red Sun Farms, Kingsville, Ontario. 

“After a very challenging winter we eagerly await our additional crops in Virginia and Ontario,” he said. “They are coming along nicely and we look forward to the launch of the 2019 spring season.”

It was difficult for buyers to find enough greenhouse vegetable supply at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, said Ray Wowryk, director of business development for NatureFresh Farms, Leamington, Ontario, with Mexican volume “extremely” delayed because of the dark and cold weather.

“But since mid-January, production has been ramping up again, especially in peppers and tomatoes,” he said. “The expectation is that there will be enough availability for the coming months.”

Cucumbers were in tight supply in January but look to have expanded volume in February and beyond, he said. 

“Starting in February, we expect Mexico to return to normal production, and shortly after, Canada will start picking more cucumbers, as well,” Wowryk said.

Ontario importance

Ontario accounts for nearly 80% of the entire Canadian greenhouse output, said Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association, Leamington.

The region has seen steady growth in greenhouse vegetable acreage, averaging close to 7% per year for multiple years, he said. However, that upward trend could take a pause this year.

“We don’t anticipate a dramatic change in acreage from last year,” he said. 

Last year, Sbrocchi said there was expectation that vegetable greenhouse acreage in Ontario would have a fairly strong increase, but that didn’t materialize.

“The simple (reason) is the diversion of acreage to cannabis, but that’s not really all of the story and a lot of other things are coming to play,” he said.

Sbrocchi said he was not aware of the total acreage devoted to cannabis production in Ontario, since no one has reported those statistics yet.

“I don’t think (cannabis growers) are far off from forming some kind of association of their own,” he said.

Acreage

Sbrocchi said overall greenhouse vegetable acreage in Ontario is close to 3,100 this year, flat or up very slightly from about 3,000 acres a year ago.

While lacking organic statistics, Sbrocchi estimated organic acreage may represent about 10% to 11% or more of greenhouse vegetable acreage, he said. 

Mastronardi of DelFrescoPure said there are about 3,000 acres of vegetable greenhouse acreage in Ontario and perhaps several hundred acres of cannabis. 

Sbrocchi said he anticipates labor-saving technology will increase in the next three years.

“There’s been some minor improvements, and a lot of it has got to do with artificial intelligence — just understanding when the plants are going to throw off fruit better so you better coordinate our labor,” he said. 

“I will predict that within the next two to three years, we will have all kinds of automation hit us,” he said. 

Acquiring and retaining general farm and warehouse labor remains the greatest challenge for all producers in both controlled and conventional farming settings, Wowryk said.

“More automation and AI is being applied to improve efficiency, he said. “This problem will continue in the coming years as the availability of skilled farm working continues to fall short of meeting our needs.”

The future is bright for Ontario greenhouses, he said, and part of that is related to demand for greenhouse-grown produce.

Demand factors are swinging in favor of greenhouse production, Wowryk said, noting Wendy’s recent move to substitute field-grown tomatoes for greenhouse product. 

 
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