Sask. couple roots farm business from home

On the Farm: U & K Greenhouses is a roadside operation with eight greenhouses equalling 21,000 sq. feet under glass

INDIAN HEAD, Sask. — Ursula and Karl Schiffer walk 20 metres out their front door for their hot holiday.

“We don’t have to go to Mexico. We’ve got our tropical climate right here. We just need some sand and a little pool and we can pretend we’re there,” said Karl jokingly.

The couple own and operate U & K Greenhouses between Indian Head, Sask., and Katepwa Lake on Highway 56.

Neatly tucked onto their tree-sheltered property, the roadside operation has eight greenhouses equalling 21,000 sq. feet from which they sell directly to customers. They offer annuals and perennials, custom-made pots and planters, hanging baskets, trees and shrubs, and landscape supplies.

The couple met in 1985 in Kamsack, Sask., where Ursula was in high school and Karl, German-born, was doing summer farm work in the area while studying agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan.

They married in 1990. Their adult children include Stephanie, Michael and Adriana, who have moved away, while Marcus, the youngest, remains involved in the business.

Like many businesses, U & K Greenhouse was born from an idea and a compromise.

In 1994, Ursula wanted to stay at home and raise their four young children while combining her desire to stay active outdoors and grow things.

“I didn’t want to leave home. I thought, well, if I just go to work, I’ve got to take my kids to the babysitter and then I’m really not winning my goal of doing anything. I’m not raising my kids and I’m just going to work.

“And really, the money that I’m making is just going to go to the babysitter so why can’t I do something here and look after my kids and work,” she said.

“Carefully and slowly,” is how she described the beginnings of their venture.

“I couldn’t just go out there and grow and have four kids from the age of seven to baby,” she said.

Within a year, however, the first greenhouse was up and running smoothly, producing and selling vegetables such as vine-ripened tomatoes and flowers.

Surrounded by bags of potting soil, hundreds of plastic hanging baskets and plant labels, a playpen was set up in the adjoining storage room that included a small kitchen and TV.

“(The children) worked and played in that greenhouse since they were babies. Sometimes they had a happy face and sometimes they didn’t have a happy face, but they would be in there transplanting away,” Ursula said.

Karl took a measured leap of faith in 1996 to leave his technician’s job at Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Indian Head to focus his energies full time on the family’s home-grown enterprise.

As the small business flourished, the children grew and soon they were big enough to help out while earning pocket money.

“This greenhouse business is a great place to have your family involved. The kids will learn a working attitude and that’s kind of really like any farm,” said Karl.

They also played a significant role by recruiting classmates to work with them after school, on weekends and during the summer.

Daily chores include seeding, germinating, planting, transplanting, pruning, moving plants around, watering and fertilizing. Then repeat.

Karl said the biggest difference between horticultural greenhouses and a traditional farming operation is the ability to control the environment and plant growth.

“On the farm you are subject to nature. You still have to put your expenses in but you don’t know what you’ll end up with, while the greenhouse is controlled. You are in charge. If you want the plants to grow faster, you turn up the heat. If you want to slow them down, you cool them down.”

Planting season begins in February for U & K. While it’s still bitterly cold outside, inside the greenhouse, temperatures are maintained.

Depending on the growing stage of plants, temperatures can range from 20 C to 25 C during the day and 15 C at night. Electric fans control humidity, which is about 80 percent.

“We have to start in February to get our job done by May 1 because that’s when we open for business. May and June are our main harvest times,” Karl said.

The middle of March sees activity ramp up to more than 10-hour workdays, every day.

And it’s not long into April before watering the tens of thousands of growing plants becomes a full-time job (10 hours on sunny days), which Karl insists that he and Marcus handle.

“I’m a firm believer if you water manually, that means you look at your plants, you see if you have problems like pests, insects, diseases. You also skip plants. Some plants if they’re wet, you just move to the next one. That’s visually watering while big greenhouses now go automatic,” he said.

A nearby dugout on their property supplies all their water throughout the year.

While three of the four children have moved on with their own careers, they still love getting their hands dirty.

“When they come home, they spend time in the greenhouse planting, even if it’s a couple hours, just to relax and enjoy going back into that old time,” said Karl.

Added Ursula: “You never know with your kids. They do move on and I think it’s really good for them to move away, but they might get drawn back into the business some day,” she said.

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