PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – A new career in the greenhouse business means former grain farmers Arnold and Teresa Brewster can finally control the weather.
The pair downsized to 120 acres and switched from grain to vegetables last year. They grow tomatoes, English cucumbers and green peppers year-round in their greenhouses near Prince Albert, and rent out their other 400 acres.
“We’re still growing but we’ve got control of things,” said Arnold.
“We can make it rain, make the sun shine and make it warm and cool.”
He found grain farming to be too much work for too little return.
“This way, you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you get paid for it.”
Cucumbers are easy to grow and provide a strong cash flow for the fledgling greenhouse business. It’s also possible to grow more than one crop per year, he said.
Within days of auctioning off the grain operation last August, a greenhouse building package arrived in their yard near the North Saskatchewan River.
That initial 3,000-sq. foot greenhouse tripled with an expansion this summer. The additional growing space was needed to keep pace with the demand from the local marketplace.
In addition to Prince Albert’s IGA, local buyers pop by to get produce, picked only when ripe.
The couple says buyers like the taste and freshness of their pesticide-free produce.
“We’d like to make a dent in what they have to bring in from out of province,” said Teresa.
The Brewsters feel they can capitalize on shifts away from large families and big gardens of the past and to urban shoppers looking for fresh local vegetables.
They deliver the produce to Prince Albert and provide signs promoting it as locally grown and pesticide-free. Prices are in line with vegetables from out of province, they said.
The couple said the hardest part about getting started was finding the specialized equipment and information they needed in Saskatchewan.
The Brewsters spent years finding out what would sell locally, taking part in seminars and attending horticultural shows.
The business was not entirely foreign to Teresa, who grew up the daughter of a greenhouse operator in Ontario. The sale of farm equipment largely covered the costs of building the greenhouses, said Arnold, who hopes the new operation will be profitable within five years.
Coal is used to heat the water for the in-floor heating systems, where seedlings are placed to get a good start before going into the greenhouses.
Arnold expects current heating costs of $65,000 to double with the addition.
In addition to drip lines for irrigation, treated plastic roof panels shield the plants from damaging ultraviolet rays while polyurethane walls keep out the prairie winds.
An aspirator that hangs from the rafters feeds information on air quality to the automatic heating controls.
Produce is trained to grow up vine strings suspended from the ceiling. Plants are fertilized but not sprayed. Moving away from pesticides was a conscious decision for Arnold, after years of chemical applications on the grain farm.
Thrips and aphids are controlled with insects imported from Holland, commonly used in greenhouses.
The age 50-plus couple, who met in the 1980s, have three adult children between them. The children are glad the Brewsters got out of grain farming and they see a more relaxed and contented father, said Teresa.
“We sleep a lot better at night, probably because we are really tired,” said Arnold.
“It’s not hard work but you’re busy every day,” Teresa said.
Vacations are rare. And even with the anticipated addition of two full-time employees later this year, the couple does not expect to sneak off to exotic locales any time soon.
“We go out to the far end of the greenhouses and it’s just like the Bahamas down there,” Arnold said.