Dream came true for Alta. greenhouse operator

On the Farm: Expansion is still in the cards for this greenhouse, more than 50 years after a young immigrant arrived in Canada

LACOMBE, Alta. — Joe Doef grew up in the horticulture industry in the Netherlands and knew early on that he wanted to continue on the garden management path. His subconscious agreed.

“I had a dream that I was living in a house surrounded by greenhouses,” he says. “I was not yet 16.”

In 1969, at the age of 19, Joe headed to Canada, horticulture degrees in hand.

Fast forward to 2020, and Doef is living his dream.

“That dream came true,” he says. “It’s been the game for the last 60 years.”

Doef’s Greenhouses Ltd. has evolved from a 24 by 36 foot wood structure to a steel-framed operation covering 11 acres, with another 13-acre expansion planned.

The company grows long English and mini cucumbers, a variety of peppers and lettuce, and eggplant year round to about 35 grocery stores in the area.

Nanthiya Thepkhamram works from a crop care machine to prune long English cucumber vines at Doef’s Greenhouses Ltd. | Maria Johnson photo

Edmonton grocers carry Doef’s vegetables as well through a partnership in Sunfresh Farms, a wholesale produce company.

In addition Doef’s sells through a half dozen or so farmers markets. Doef’s employs 60 local people.

Joe hired his first employee in the 1970s, Helen Tolsma, who became his wife. The couple live just steps from the greenhouse on the 20-acre property. Two other homes house employees.

The Doefs’ three sons and two daughters grew up in the industry and spent many hours in the greenhouse but it was never an expectation that they continue on the same path.

Doef’s grows two crops of long English cucumbers a year that produce seven million cucumbers. With fewer local greenhouses producing throughout the winter, Doef’s sees an increase in sales during the winter. | Maria Johnson photo

All of the children left Lacombe to pursue their post-secondary education and experience the world.

Two sons are now partners with their dad in the business, as is sister Coby’s husband, Phil Visscher. The three, with their families, live close to the greenhouse.

Two younger siblings, twins, are pursuing other walks of life. One ventured into the local craft beer industry while his sister lives at Rosebud, Alta.

Eric, the eldest of the five, is head grower at Doef’s Greenhouses, in charge of planning and communications. His brother, Paul, is labour manager and does payroll. Brother-in-law Phil handles maintenance, fertigation, bio-control and accounts payable.

Joe has handed much of the management of the operation to his partners but continues in the role of adviser. He and Helen are also involved with farmers markets.

“He’s a great mentor,” says Eric of his dad. “And if there’s growers out there that have questions he helps them out.”

Eric says the next generation, Joe and Helen’s grandchildren, also work farmers markets.

The combined heat and power facility maintained by Horseshoe Power GP Ltd. supplies electricity, heat and carbon dioxide to the greenhouse. | Maria Johnson photo

“It teaches some good life skills. Even counting change to people when there’s a lineup of six or seven. There’s pressure to make the sale and give the correct change.”

Eric went on to talk about the company’s overall driving factor.

“We always want to grow top quality,” he says. “We can control a lot of factors with indoor growth so we try to maximize that.”

Some of those factors include growing systems, glass, lighting, temperature, moisture, irrigation, carbon dioxide and pest control.

Doef’s prefers the high-wire growing system for their cucumbers as opposed to the traditional umbrella system, citing higher overall production.

Diffused glass covers the newer five acres of the greenhouse, completed in 2011, with double poly over the rest.

Eric explained that diffused glass cuts the intensity of direct light and spreads that light more deeply into the crop. Benefits include a more uniform climate that accelerates growth and reduces plant stress.

The company relies on knowledgeable in-house staff as well as contracted experts to monitor and improve production.

“We have a bio-control scout on staff,” says Eric.

“A greenhouse is a great climate for pests and diseases to grow so we’re always challenged with controlling them. We introduce good bugs to fight the pests.”

Doef’s grows a variety of lettuces including butter leaf, oakleaf and romaine as well as some bok choy. | Maria Johnson photo

Those include thrips, spider mites, aphids and loopers.

“As well, a crop specialist comes by every two weeks. He sees things we don’t … things that we can tweak to improve production.”

Nine acres of the greenhouse receive supplemental high pressure sodium lighting, which provides a broad spectrum of light at a low cost.

“We use lights six to seven months of the year, for about 20 hours per day,” says Eric.

He says cucumbers make up about two-thirds of total production with an estimated seven million long English cucumbers grown annually.

Electrical and heat requirements at Doef’s, particularly through the cold winter months, is high. That, plus extra CO2 plants require for growth through photosynthesis, are supplied via a co-generation arrangement with Horseshoe Power GP Ltd. based in Calgary.

Horseshoe Power extracts gas from its natural gas wells, with some of that transported to the power company’s facility at Doef’s site. The facility, with a capacity of 5.3 megawatts, houses four heat and power installations, which convert the gas into electricity, heat and CO2. Heat that’s not needed immediately is stored for later use.

“We’re totally off the grid,” says Eric. “A greenhouse is the perfect marriage with an energy centre. It’s a total win-win situation.”

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