By Andrew Campbell
Around our house, we have a few staples that go into the grocery cart nearly every week. Cucumbers are one of those, since they are so easy to slice and add to a lunch pail or a salad. And with today’s modern food system, cucumbers aren’t just a taste of summer anymore. They are something you can find nearly every day of the year, even from the cold climates of Canada. Jan and his family have been growing cucumbers for many years, packing thousands of them every day. Come and see just what it takes to get the fruit from a greenhouse to your plate in just a few short hours.
We are talking to Jan from Beverly Greenhouses. There are a lot of greenhouses around here. How much space do you have dedicated to growing cucumbers?
All together we have 22 acres (That’s 10 city blocks!). Two of those acres are focused on propagation, which is kind of like a nursery where we grow the seeds to small plants. The other 20 acres are for the production of cucumbers.
You’ve been in harvest mode for the last week or so. The cucumber plants are growing vertically. What’s the reason for this?
To save space and grow a healthy crop, we string the cucumber plants up so they grow vertically. We go through the crop three or four times a week, winding the string around the stem and then we also prune out extra growth so the plant focuses on growing cucumbers rather than leaves.
If we don’t prune off the extra growth, it just becomes a little bush. We want to train the plant to grow up high so it’s getting the most light. It also makes it more efficient for harvest and working in the crop.
From the time that you plant cucumbers in the growing cube, how long before they’re ready to harvest?
We seed directly into the growing cube, and at this time of year (January), it takes 29 days to get them ready for transplanting. When we plant them in the greenhouse at 29 days old, they’re 45 centimeters tall. After that, they grow fairly quickly. From then it takes almost a month before we start harvesting cucumbers from those plants.
Once cucumber plants start to flower, how long until they actually start producing cucumbers?
It’s interesting to know that there’s a significant difference from that time that it takes from flower to harvest. There are a lot of variables, but the biggest one is the time of year. During this time of year (January) it takes at least 12 days. I would say in the summer, it is more like 7 days.
It also depends a lot on how many fruits are hanging on the plant. The more cucumbers growing on a plant at one time, the slower they’re all going to grow.
I’m assuming that the shorter time in the summer is because you’ve got more light coming in through the roof?
Exactly. People think that greenhouses are immune to the weather. The reality is that this is agriculture and we pretty much depend on the weather! I don’t know if you can tell on the video, but it’s dark and raining right now, so very little photosynthesis will happen on a day like this and the production will immediately be impacted.
Light being one impact, what else impacts a cucumber growing?
Temperature is a big factor. We’re heating the greenhouse to optimum temperature all the time. In fact, that’s what operating a greenhouse is; it’s about optimization. We optimize the temperature, the humidity, the watering, the plant nutrition and care. Everything is optimized. We even add CO2 into the air to optimize the growth of the plant.
You’re actually adding more CO2 than what they’d have outside? What would be the reason for adding extra CO2?
Ambient CO2 is about 400 parts per million and it’s all computerized. What actually happens is as the sun intensity goes up, the computer will start the boiler up and blow the exhaust right off the boiler into the greenhouse to raise the CO2 and it goes up proportionately.
The sunnier it is, the more CO2 we inject up to a maximum. At this time of day, the maximum would be 800 parts per million so if the CO2 goes above 800 parts per million (which is double the ambient), then the computer shuts it off.
So you’re actually really recycling some of those greenhouse gases that you’re using anyway and feeding the plants with it. Pretty environmentally thoughtful of you!
We’re taking the exhaust off the boiler, for the heat that we have to make anyways, and we’re using it to optimize the growth of the plants.
When it rains outside, these plants aren’t going to get rained on. How do you water them?
Each plant has a water dripper inserted in the box of growing medium so we can deliver water right to the roots. All the water is fertilized water, so all the nutrients that plants need are in that water. The fertilized water is specially formulated just for cucumbers. We verify the nutrient levels are appropriate on regular intervals and adjust accordingly.
Once the cucumbers are harvested they are brought to the cucumber packing house.
Tell me about this process, Jan.
We have two sites where we’re growing and this is where we bring all of our cucumbers after they are picked. We pack them the same day we pick them and they’re trucked out of here the same day as well.
We harvest into orange crates and then they’re unloaded onto trolleys. Once they’re on the trolleys, then all the handling is done automatically. Nobody’s lifting and twisting and pulling.
The trolleys are dumped onto the line and the cucumbers are individually wrapped and then boxed.
Well that’s a lot of cucumbers going through there. How many cucumbers can you do in a day?
We can package about 1,500-1,600 dozen per hour, but we only pack what we harvested that day. It’s only what was ready. So that could be a few hundred dozen or it could be 10 or 12 thousand of them.
You said these are then going to the grocery stores. Where are your cucumbers going? Where can people buy your cucumbers?
Our cucumbers go to all the major chains in Ontario and even into the United States. In fact, over 70% of Ontario greenhouse vegetables are exported to the U.S. That’s a big number.
I appreciate the tour, Jan.
Andrew Campbell’s full Dinner Starts Here video