North-central Saskatchewan isn’t a typical location for a year-round vegetable producer to set up shop.
But then again, Mary Campbell and Neil Erickson are not your typical vegetable growers.
In fact, it would be fair to say that their location and production model are a bit off the beaten track.
Campbell and Erickson are the owners and operators of Campbell Greenhouse, an organic aquaponic greenhouse.
The soil-free greenhouse is located near Annaheim, Sask., about two hours east of Saskatoon in the heart of wheat and canola country.
The greenhouse doesn’t only grow vegetables.
It also houses about 100 fish in three large holding tanks.
Excrement produced by the fish is used as a source of nutrients for plants that grow in shallow aquaponic beds.
The entire system operates on about 5,000 gallons of water, which is circulated through a complex network of pipes and filters that was designed and constructed by Erickson.
“We started out planning to grow lettuce and herbs … but we found that the cropping time was too long to pay for all of our electrical inputs,” Campbell said.
“We found that micro-greens (pea shoots) were something we were able to market … and we can crop them quite quickly so it’s a better return on our investment.”
Campbell, originally from Calgary, had worked in the bedding plant industry before she got into vegetable production.
She knew she wanted a career in horticulture but she also recognized that operating a traditional greenhouse wasn’t an easy row to hoe. The bedding plant market is extremely competitive and the growing season is short.
In addition, heating and cooling costs in a conventional poly-covered greenhouse can be high and the majority of sales take place during a condensed marketing season.
The couple’s solution was to grow and market produce year round in a controlled environment.
Campbell and Erickson began searching for an appropriate location about seven or eight years ago and settled on a 70-acre parcel of land at Annaheim.
The location offered everything they were looking for, including a sheltered yard site, good water source, paved access and relatively inexpensive real estate prices.
Campbell’s Greenhouse has been operating for roughly four years.
During that time, it has produced a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, including strawberries and lettuce.
The company now focuses on fresh pea shoots, which can be used in stir fries, fresh salads and other dishes.
They briefly considered selling fish fillets to supplement their income but decided that processing costs would be prohibitive.
“Right now, we have about 100 koi that produce the nutrients for our plants,” said Campbell, who met Erickson while studying horticulture at Olds College in Olds, Alta. “We started out with telapia but we found the koi easier to take care of.
“Basically, they produce all of our fertilizer,” she added. “They produce ammonia as a waste product. The ammonia that they produce goes through a series of bio filters where the biologicals convert it to a form on nitrogen that the plants can use.”
Campbell and Erickson concede that they turned a few heads when they moved to Annaheim and started setting up their operation.
Initially, they weren’t even sure what they wanted to grow, only that they wanted to sell fresh produce year-round.
After some research, they decided on a closed aquaponics system, complete with fish tanks, aquaponic beds and an area where fresh greens are packaged, labelled and prepared for market.
The entire operation is housed in a metal clad shed that looks nothing like a conventional greenhouse.
In-floor heating keeps the building at a perfect temperature for aquaponic production.
An exterior wood-burning furnace is fuelled with scrap wood collected from a nearby truss man-ufacturer as well as cord wood from their land.
“We got a few strange looks,” said Erickson, when asked about the decision to set up in rural Saskatchewan.
“A lot of people aren’t even sure what aquaponics is. When most people hear the word ponics, they think of hydroponics and then they think of marijuana.”
“Some people still look at us a bit funny but I think they’re warming up to us.”
The venture also raised eyebrows at the government level.
The couple ran into a tangle of red tape when they attempted to im-port commercial quantities of fish into Saskatchewan, said Campbell.
At one point, a provincial conservation officer showed up to ensure that the operation was conforming with Saskatchewan’s fish and wildlife laws.
Getting the province’s Crown utility companies to provide service was also a challenge.
In fact, difficulties securing a gas hookup from SaskEnergy helped convince the couple that a wood-fired heating system would be less hassle and more cost efficient.
“We’re not your average greenhouse,” Erickson said with a chuckle. “There aren’t many like us and with good reason. I think a traditional greenhouse would be much easier to operate.
“But we grow fresh organic food 12 months a year and we use 80 to 90 percent less water than a traditional greenhouse.”