Hobby becomes full-time business

As Paul Hotchkiss walks through his greenhouse, he checks the vines yielding French pole beans and colourful heirloom tomatoes.

His customers want freshness and quality from a local grower who can supply chefs with custom grown produce.

“We get a premium for our beans, just like we do for our tomatoes. Everything is hand picked,” he said.

He had no intention of becoming a farmer two decades ago as the owner of a natural gas marketing firm. He started as an amateur gardener tilling the soil in his suburban backyard.

In 1989, he and his wife, Tracy, moved to a quarter section of land near Calgary, where he built a 4,000 sq. foot greenhouse.

The greenhouse was a hobby until Paul got an unexpected call from the sous chef of an upscale Calgary restaurant looking for fresh artichokes. He did not have any but he told her he had heirloom tomatoes.

The chef took that first bite and Hotchkiss was suddenly in the produce business. He had to learn how to direct market and grow more by expanding his organic crop list and greenhouse space.

Tracy quit her Calgary job in 1999 to help. Today, they employ 12 people, including six seasonal Mexican workers to keep the greenhouse running year round to supply about 50 Calgary area restaurants and 15 fresh organic grocers.

Paul sold his gas business in the late 1990s and became a full-time farmer with more customers than product to sell.

Tracy leaves the garden work to Paul and works with grocery stores and restaurants.

“He brings the green thumbs to the table and I bring my ability to sell products and manage staff,” she said.

For the future, she sees the business growing to two acres of greenhouse space from the current one acre.

“We will still maintain the mom and pop approach to business and take advantage of volume sales,” she said.

Besides tomatoes and beans, the couple grows herbs, spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard and arugula. A 10 to 20 acre outdoor patch includes green onions, broccoli and cauliflower.

The farm also supplies flats of wheatgrass to the fresh juice chain, Jug-O-Juice.

“We have been fortunate. Most farmers are price takers and often when they have a whole bunch of stuff, the price goes way down,” Paul said.

“They make something on one thing and get crushed by something else. It is the nature of the beast.

“We don’t have that issue. We have a long, long waiting list,” Paul said.

All the vegetables are picked ripe twice a week and delivered the same day.

The farm was certified organic about eight years ago but the couple is more interested in a trend called heritage gardening, which uses 100-year-old techniques.

All the products are grown in a rich compost-soil mix rather than hydroponics and growing media like conventional greenhouses.

They manufacture the compost on the farm using horse manure from neighbouring stables mixed with straw or wood chips.

“It is a really interesting scientific challenge for me to see if I can grow stuff in a self sustaining deal where the farm produces the hay and the compost material, then we grow the plants in it,” he said.

A viral problem among the tomatoes in 2002 encouraged him to breed his own varieties. He has learned to graft old varieties and breed disease resistance into new tomato root stock.

He saves the seeds and grows out the new plants making sure he has good colour, hardiness and quality.

Calgary area weather brings cold nights, high winds and this year, too much cloud and rain.

The farm had a hard frost June 18 and frost showed up again in mid-August.

“We went four weeks without sun. It really hurt us,” he said.

Paul has a 50 tonne grain bin to hold the coal he purchases from Ryley, Alta., and he is expanding to a 200 tonne bin so there is enough fuel on hand to keep the heat system running.

“In cold weather, it is gone in 21 days and it doesn’t matter if it is blizzarding.”

In spite of the challenges, Paul has a long-term commitment to his business that is making money and keeping him busy.

“If you can get everybody pulling in the same direction and you get your production, and even if you haven’t cured your problems, if you know how to cure your problems, then it is a good step,” he said.

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