On the Farm: Sask. producers made the switch to greenhouses from grain bins and now run one of the largest operations in the province
Gil and Brenda Leray aren’t your typical Saskatchewan farmers — not by a long shot.
About 30 years ago, the Lerays made a life-changing decision to stop growing broad-acre crops like wheat, barley and canola. Instead, they decided to focus on a higher value crop.
The Lerays own and operate Leray Gardens at Prud’Homme, Sask., a thriving greenhouse operation that sells about three million bedding plants annually to gardeners and retailers across Saskatchewan.
What began as a hobby in the late 1980s has grown into one of largest family-owned commercial greenhouse operations in the province.
“We started out with a little 16-by-20 foot greenhouse,” says Gil, who grew grain and oilseeds for about a decade before he and Brenda decided to rent out the farmland.
“Over the years, we just kept expanding and expanding because there was always demand for the plants.”
“Today, we’ve got about 80,000 sq. feet under plastic.”
The Lerays’ transition from grain farming to greenhouse growing was prompted by Brenda’s love of gardening.
At the time, Gil and Brenda were recently married and operated a six-quarter grain and livestock farm that Gil had taken over from his father.
Brenda, an avid gardener, used to buy bedding plants from other greenhouse operators until Gil agreed to build her a small greenhouse of her own.
From there, Brenda’s green thumb took over.
At first, friends and neighbours in the Prud’Homme area caught wind of Brenda’s ability to grow top-quality bedding plants. Soon after, retailers began to take notice as well.
Within a few years, Gil had added a second greenhouse, this one 40-by-20 feet, then a 30-by-40 foot greenhouse; then another and another.
Today, they have 16 greenhouses and an outdoor commercial vegetable garden.
As the number of greenhouses at Leray Gardens grew, so did the company’s clientele.
At one point, the operation produced, sold and delivered plants to retail operations throughout Saskatchewan, and as far away as Winnipeg.
“We expanded and expanded and just kept expanding,” says Gil.
“People loved our plants, and we enjoyed growing them.”
Gil describes a typical day during Leray Gardens’ busy spring season as extremely intense and physically demanding, but rewarding.
Greenhouse duties are shared between Brenda and Gil and a staff of about 14 seasonal workers.
Brenda is in charge of production and purchasing. Gil is in charge of sales, maintenance and infrastructure.
Seasonal workers include a handful of locals from the Prud’Homme area and a reliable group of foreign workers that are brought in each year from Mexico.
Over the years, the Mexican workers have become close friends that Brenda and Gil view as extended family members.
“It’s very rewarding to know that you’re providing employment and helping people to improve their lives and provide for their families,” Gil said.
“We’ve become very close with our workers and their families…. We really value the smiles and the good times.”
Of course, managing an 80,000 sq. foot greenhouse business is not without its challenges.
Compared to managing a grain farm, it requires constant attention and an intense focus on crop maintenance.
Rotations are also more complex.
This year, Leray Gardens will grow more than 1,000 different species and varieties of bedding plants.
Different crops require different watering intervals and have unique fertility needs.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Gil.
“When you’re putting a (grain) crop in the ground, the timelines and management decisions are very important too, but this is a bit more intense.”
The company has also suffered a few setbacks.
In 2011, for example, fire destroyed much of the operation.
It took about eight years to rebuild after that disaster, says Gil.
Ensuring the safe and timely entry of Leray Gardens’ valued foreign workers was also an “interesting challenge” this year due to COVID-related travel restrictions.
Thanks to good forward planning, all of the workers arrived in Saskatchewan and 2021 production is on schedule.
The busy delivery season typically begins around May 1.
Looking back, Gil concedes the transition from grain farming to greenhouse management was a career change that took great deal of hard work and dedication.
Despite the long hours and physically demanding work, he and Brenda have no regrets.
“We were regular grain farmers,” says Gil, when asked about his former grain farming career.
“We also had about 30 head of cattle, as well as pigs and chickens. But after a while, we realized that we didn’t have time to do the farming and the greenhouse. We had to take care of one or the other, so we chose to continue with the greenhouse.”
“You don’t do this for the money,” he adds.
“You do it because you enjoy it and you enjoy the people you work with.
“It’s very rewarding, but if you’d have told me 30 years ago that this is the direction we’d be going, I’d have said you’re full of baloney.”