Alberta greenhouse closure sign of a tough business

For gardeners, the notice on the Central Alberta Greenhouse’s Facebook page was distressing. After 85 years, the greenhouse was closing its doors.

“We regretfully have to inform you of the closure of Central Alberta Greenhouses. Effective: Aug. 6, 2019, our doors will officially be closed.”

Since 1931, the third-generation greenhouse had supplied gardeners, florists and wholesalers across Saskatchewan and Alberta with flowers.

“We have been firm believers in supporting local, and because of your support we have been fortunate to have had the longevity we did,” said the notice.

The greenhouse business is not for the faint-of-heart, said Albert Cramer, president of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association.

High energy costs, staff shortages, labour costs and imported products from the United States and other provinces all add to the daily stress of operating a business.

“It’s all kinds of pressure that plays on you,” said Cramer, who operates two greenhouse companies in Redcliff, Alta.

“A lot of small growers have anxiety.”

Across Canada, the number of ornamental (anything non-edible) farms dropped by 20 percent from 2011-16, but the size of farms increased by almost 16 percent, according to Statistics Canada.

The number of greenhouse vegetable operations on the Prairies increased from 90 to 101 from 2013-17.

Just like other sectors of agriculture, farmers are forced to specialize or become larger to compete.

Cramer and his partners are partway through plans to expand their Big Marble Farms greenhouses from 35 to 55 acres. It’s part of a decision 10 years ago to shift from seasonal vegetable production to year-round vegetable production.

“We have the market. We needed to supply our customers more than just seasonally,” Cramer said of the greenhouses, which produce mainly cucumbers and tomatoes.

Production of vegetables in Alberta increased by 29 percent to 31,446 tonnes in 2017 from 22,195 tonnes in 2015, the latest Statistics Canada figures.

The farmgate value of greenhouse vegetables increased by just five percent from $53.5 million to $56. 4 million during the same time.

While the price of natural gas is the cheapest it has been in years, Alberta’s minimum wage increased to $15 an hour this year from $10.50 in 2015. As well, greenhouses are now paying holiday pay and other employee benefits from which they were once exempt.

“All this plays a role in the confidence of the industry,” he said.

Instead of getting bigger, Nadine Stielow chose to specialize what she grew in her Thiel’s Greenhouses near Bruderheim, Alta.

She moved away from just flowers and now grows hydroponic vegetables, including several kinds of lettuce, herbs and kohlrabi.

“I even grow crazy things like leeks and beets.”

It was the “crazy highs and lows” of the busy spring season, and the slow off-season that encouraged Stielow to begin growing vegetables year round.

“I aimed for an even consistency to my business year round.”

Year round production also helped keep staff and increase the efficiency of her greenhouse space.

The move to growing leafy green vegetables is helping answer the call from consumers for local food.

“Everyone wants fresh, local food. It’s the right timing.”

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