By Magpie Group
Not so long ago, Canadians had limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables because of our short growing season. For example, we had an abundance of field-grown cucumbers and tomatoes in the summer months and early fall, but could only find limited quantities – and often limited quality – of produce in the grocery store during the winter months. It was a similar story for fruits like strawberries.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Today, Canadian-grown tomatoes and English-type seedless cucumbers are produced in greenhouses from January through December, and strawberries are available year-round too. Not to mention lettuce, peppers, green beans, eggplant, herbs, other berries – and more! And, of course, microgreens, including sprouts, have been available for 12 months a year for quite a long time now.
It’s an incredible achievement given the extremes in the Canadian climate (in the -40C to +40C range).
How is this even possible?
You can thank consumer demand. Canadians want more fresh fruits and vegetables, period! Healthy eating today is a concern now more than ever – just look at the most recent Canada’s Food Guide that recommends half your plate consist of fruits and vegetables. The average Canadian diet has changed dramatically in the last 30-plus years. We also have more vegetarians, vegans and immigrants who have influenced the food that is on the shelves in our stores.
Rapid technology development has also managed to make greenhouses a more profitable option for produce production.
In 2021, there were 892 commercial greenhouse vegetable operations in Canada,
producing 722,890 metric tonnes of vegetables! 1
Improving access to fresh food
Not only do greenhouses supply year-round fruits and veggies, they’re important for other reasons as well. They help Canadians rely less on food imports AND give us the ability to supply other countries with high-quality fruits and vegetables too!
Greenhouses can also assist with food security in more remote areas of the country, which traditionally have needed to have their fruits and vegetables trucked or flown in because of extremely short growing seasons. Northern communities can benefit tremendously from produce grown in locally operated greenhouses.
DYK? Because of their optimal growing conditions, greenhouses produce about 12 times more food per acre than vegetables or fruits grown outdoors. Also, because it is protected from weather events and certain pests and diseases, more than 90% of the fruit grown is marketable, compared to 40-60% of field grown fruit.2
It’s not all roses
Running a greenhouse isn’t easy. Besides the technical expertise and horticultural knowledge required, many greenhouse tasks are highly repetitive, time consuming and physically demanding. It’s often difficult for greenhouse managers to find local employees so they rely on temporary foreign workers. In fact, over 40% of Canada’s greenhouse workers are from other countries.3
Many greenhouses have also turned to technology and automation to overcome this challenge. For example:
- Automated fertilizing and watering systems control the amount of food and water given to each plant. It eliminates human error and replaces a repetitive job with technology. It also ensures that plants receive exactly what they need and results in fewer resources being wasted.
- Automated packaging lines where greenhouse vegetables are packed and sorted by weight and colour have reduced the need for back-breaking manual labour. Greenhouse operators have found it extremely difficult to find enough people to do all the jobs in a greenhouse and automation means they’re able to operate with many fewer staff.
- Plant protection robots use vision-based or chemical sensors to detect the presence of pests in the greenhouse.
- Sensors allow greenhouse operators to manage temperature, humidity, water, lighting, ventilation and nutrients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Another issue is that even though greenhouses provide an excellent environment for plant growth, they are surprisingly vulnerable to insects and diseases. That’s because despite being fully enclosed, pests can still enter on people, seeds, ventilation screens, tools and equipment. Managing insects and diseases is critical for greenhouse operators. Greenhouses rely on biosecurity practices to prevent pests from getting into a greenhouse and then spreading to other locations.
- Limiting visitor access.
- Cleaning and disinfecting the greenhouse and equipment.
- Mechanical and physical controls such as foot baths, traps, air curtains, controlled entry and hand washing.
And, of course, costs keep going up! Between 2019 and 2020, operating expenses (increased by 13%4. Adding lighting, automation and other technology like robots is necessary but very costly.
Are all fruits and vegetables suitable for greenhouses?
No, not all crops can be grown indoors. Whether a farmer grows horticulture crops outdoors or in a greenhouse depends on that specific crop’s growing requirements, consumer demand and the best way for farmers to generate income from that crop. For example, although cucumbers are ideally suited for a greenhouse environment, crops such as potatoes and carrots are grown outdoors because of the amount of space required to produce sufficient volumes to make growing them cost effective. They just require too much land to be grown in a greenhouse setting.
We now have the technology to add more fruits and vegetables to the greenhouse growing list. Greenhouses are able to produce a wider range of berries, including raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, along with eggplant and zucchini.
A bright road ahead
With the introduction of new plant varieties and new greenhouse technologies, the future looks very promising for the greenhouse industry in Canada, which is growing leaps and bounds every year. It’s allowing us to be able to access more fresh fruits and vegetable year-round. It’s also contributing to food security in more northern and remote parts of the country and generating new markets for Canadian agriculture.
- https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/sector/horticulture/reports/statistical-overview-canadian-greenhouse-vegetable-mushroom-industry-2021 ↩︎
- Production and value of greenhouse fruits and vegetables | Statistics Canada ↩︎
- https://cahrc-ccrha.ca/sites/default/files/CAHRC%20LMI%20TFWs%202Apr2020%20v2.pdf ↩︎