Rebuilding after fire | Alberta greenhouse operators restore thriving tomato business with help from customers and friends
NANTON, Alta. — Tony and Karen Legault have always believed life is a journey up the ladder to better things.
However, they feared the ladder had run out of rungs last winter when a wildfire nearly destroyed their home and greenhouse operation east of Nanton.
They had spent 12 years steadily building Paradise Hill Farm into a major tomato enterprise.
One year ago this month, a fallen power pole ignited the tinder dry prairie grass two kilometres from their farm. Fire moving 120 km/h swept across their property, leaving Karen and their 10-year-old son, Cody, minutes to escape. Tony stayed behind to fight the fire that licked up the side of the new home they built two months earlier. Four municipal fire crews were on the scene fighting fire, smoke and flying debris.
“As the heat came over the greenhouse, it just swelled up the plastic and it went poof,” Tony said.
The polyethylene roofs and metal trusses melted and twisted. Livestock, outbuildings, vehicles and pasture were lost. The house survived with damage to the siding and foundation.
The fire covered 60 sq. kilometres and the next day all the Legaults could do was survey the rubble, ash and blackened ground.
“When you have built something and it all disappears in four hours, I don’t care how gung ho you are, there is a moment in time when this hits you,” Tony said.
“Seven o’clock the very next morning, I sat on a rock and that was the only time in my whole life where I felt completely defeated.”
They were renewed by the unexpected kindness of friends, neighbours and business associates, including help from their local bank manager.
It took 300 hours to clean away the debris.
The grass grew back, but there was no ground cover so they rested it over the summer. They have sheep but decided to turn that area into a pheasant habitat.
The farm is a major supplier of tomatoes to the Calgary Co-op grocery chain. The manager was on the phone the next day wanting to know what needed to be done.
Twenty-three produce managers from the Co-op showed up March 12 to help plant thousands of seedlings in the newly built greenhouse. The company also bought the children’s 4-H market lambs last spring. One sold for $10.75 a pound.
The family’s positive attitude kept them going.
“Everybody says, how can you be so positive? But you know what? Nobody died, and I am thankful that we were around to get Cody out and in the scope of what you see in the world everyday, it wasn’t so bad,” Karen said.
The farm had started small when the Legaults bought a quarter section with an established 12,000 sq. foot greenhouse. Karen came from an agricultural background in British Columbia, while Tony was a mechanic in Calgary who wanted to farm.
“I met a city boy and my life was going fairly comfortably. He was a good mechanic and making good money and I was in charge of play group and hosted book club and coffee mornings,” she said.
She said Tony told her one day he had quit his job and they were going to be farmers. He assured her life would not change.
Tony was prepared to work hard after training at the horticulture centre in Brooks, Alta., but it soon became apparent that Karen would have to help. As a couple, they have built a successful business in which they pick, grade and package tomatoes, manage the paperwork and enjoy their family of three boys, Shayne, Luke and Cody, and daughter Chantelle.
The emphasis is on expanding the business but they do not want to grow so large that they lose the personal touch.
They started by selling their vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes to farmers’ markets, restaurants and grocery stores.
They eventually developed an exclusive relationship with the Co-op that has not wavered. Ten pallets of fresh picked tomatoes are delivered twice a week and they cannot keep up with the demand.
The emphasis is on selling a farmers’ market product in a grocery store.
The fresh picked tomatoes come in all sizes, a departure from the standard sized produce seen in many grocery stores, where produce staff carefully build pyramids of fruit. The different sized tomatoes are all mixed in one bin.
The greenhouse is pesticide free and the tomatoes are randomly tested for 200 known substances.
Tony and Karen drive their delivery trucks 80 km to Calgary twice a week because store managers like to meet them and talk about what they are doing.
“I think it is a big reason why we are successful,” Karen said.
“We are there and we are talking to the produce people and we are seeing what is happening on the floor and what the competitors are selling.”
The Co-op displays full-sized posters beside the tomato cases explaining who the Legaults are and how the tomatoes are grown.
Urban customers may have preconceived notions of what local producers might be like, but the Legaults want people to realize they are operators of a family-owned corporate farm. It is a business first, then a lifestyle.
“You create the lifestyle by the hard work and what you get out of it. It is not some sort of storybook thing,” Tony said.
The Legaults have been asked to mentor others, but they have found few are willing to work that hard or be disciplined enough to persist.
However, they have set aside an acre of their land for Calgary market gardeners.
The family has considered growing other vegetables such as peppers and cucumbers, but that takes space away from their main commodity.
Plenty of land and water are available for a separate structure if their children want to start a separate venture.
They employ three full-time people who work with the plants and another person who runs the farm’s food safety program and store.
The children also work on the farm and are paid wages. Shayne is now in university studying business, but he has told his family he might return.
The Legaults have learned to make time for fun now that the farm is a success, but they also have to be within cellphone coverage.
Tony monitors the farm’s activities through an alarm system on his phone. If something goes wrong in the greenhouse, it must be dealt with quickly.
They also use cameras to monitor how the plants are doing in the controlled atmosphere.
“We have got a two hour window to get back here and get something fixed,” Karen said.
It seems they are tied to the farm, but that is their choice. Further expansion is a possibility, but they have proved farm size does not matter.
“We earn a living on 160 acres and we were told when we started that unless we had 3,000 acres we weren’t going to make it,” Tony said.