Alta. growers find market with appetite for local food

OLDS, Alta. — Imagine snacking on fresh, locally grown strawberries at Christmas.

Wayne and Caroline Lohr and their business partner, Ulf Geerds, hope to do just that with their new venture growing vegetables, herbs and strawberries indoors year round on vertical panels.

Based at Olds, Alta., this new technology dovetails well with their seasonal bedding plant business at Lohr-A-Lee Greenhouses and Indoor Gardens that caters to customers who want to garden in the microclimates of central and southern Alberta.

Wayne and Ulf were originally interested in aquaponics but Carolyn interjected and asked them if they wanted the added complexity of fish as well as vegetable growing.

Ulf then took in an aquaponics event in Ontario and heard about Indoor Farms of America, run by David Martin of Las Vegas.

Martin had developed a way to produce high quality vegetables, herbs and strawberries by using vertical aeroponic production.

Plants are started from seed in individual plugs that are eventually mounted into the panels. A patented watering system mists the roots that are enclosed inside the panels.

LED lights mounted between the panels make the plants grow, and within a few weeks they have ready-to-eat lettuce and other greens.

They have erected 47 panels so far in what used to be a fully heated and ventilated horse barn.

The panels arrived earlier this year in crates and Wayne and Ulf assembled the pieces and hooked up the plumbing.

“We have to admit with this system there were a few whoopsies and a few undosies and a few phone calls to David and his crew,” said Wayne.

That was followed by experimentation and learning what grows well. Strawberries need some more work but the lettuce varieties have taken off.

“There are a lot of things we still have to learn and the company has been very open to our suggestions,” said Ulf, an agronomist originally from Germany.

“We think it has a future. The big kinks have been worked out,” he said.

They have been so successful growing salad greens they are working with Federated Co-op to market butter lettuce that will be packaged in clamshells and sold as a local product. They hope to have products in some Calgary stores by Christmas.

To edge their marketing plans forward, they have completed their Good Agricultural Practices certification. It is an internationally recognized voluntary audit program to verify fruits and vegetables are produced, packed and handled as safely as possible to minimize food safety risks.

Even though this is a retirement project for Wayne and Carolyn, they have decided they are willing to work hard growing and marketing salad greens.

They also have the local distributorship for this technology.

“I had no qualms we could grow quality stuff,” said Wayne.

“The reality is there is a difference between what can grow in this system and what you can economically grow,” he said.

They are already thinking expansion and so far have about 15,000 plant holes in 47 panels where they can grow 4,000 heads of lettuce per week.

“You can be in full production in six weeks from the time you seed the first lettuce. With strawberries, you have to have a 45 to 60 day period,” he said.

Everyone pitches in to work. Carolyn’s sister, Valerie Miller, and Wayne’s sister, Marilyn Michels, are also available to work in the vertical gardens as well as the greenhouse. The Lohrs children are grown and are not involved in the farm.

The deal with FCL was welcome because Carolyn did not want the added work of selling at farmers markets.

“I could probably have taken time and sold quite a bit of lettuce but it takes a lot of time and it might not be worth it,” she said.

All partners are enthusiastic about the project and believe they have found a special niche in Alberta where so much produce is imported annually.

“What does the market want? It is not about having the bins full of durum and going out and seeing what you can get for it,” Wayne said.

“The heart of this is there is a pile of money being put into this and we want to know before we start that there is a market for it,” he said.

The team brings considerable experience to the venture.

Carolyn is the grower and has an agriculture degree from the University of Alberta specializing in horticulture.

She and Wayne lived on Vancouver Island for many years where both worked for the British Columbia government and also raised Quarter horses.

She was with the forestry department and was involved in developing tree seedlings for replanting programs.

Wayne is an agriculture economist and worked with Alberta Agriculture during the days of Freedom to Choose when the province supported farmers who wanted a voluntary Canadian Wheat Board.

When he was in B.C., he was involved in the tree fruit sector when massive replantings were initiated so farmers could grow more modern and saleable apples.

He and Ulf met while working for Agri-Trend as farm business coaches.

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