By Andrew Campbell
For a lot of people, supporting a local farm means heading to the farmers market. But one thing I’ve learned from many of these farm tours is that simply looking for the Product of Canada label means you are likely supporting a local farm too. This tour is of a greenhouse that grows peppers. It is just one example of many where the farm is selling their products through channels that mean it ends up at Costco, Loblaws and Wal-Mart, rather than a local market. After all, they are able to grow a tremendous number of peppers for several months in the year, starting in late winter. And as someone who has peppers on their shopping list almost every week of the year, that stable supply for so many months is exactly what I’ve come to expect (which I think shows just how amazing our food system is!)
But that isn’t the only thing I learned on this tour. The fact that your green peppers are really an unripened coloured pepper, or why a field grown pepper might have a sweeter taste than a greenhouse grown one (nutrition has nothing to do with it) makes this a fact packed tour you’ll definitely want to take!
We are back in a greenhouse, this time talking to Joe from Enniskillin Peppers about growing peppers. Thanks for having us. Behind us we’ve got green and yellow peppers, but the plan is that they are all going to turn yellow?
Every pepper starts out green and then it turns color. So, there’s no true green pepper anywhere. That is why green peppers are bitter and why they are cheaper to purchase, because they are unripe peppers picked prematurely.
Do you grow your peppers from seed or do they come from a propagation greenhouse?
They are started (known as propagating) at Roeland’s Greenhouse. They’re seeded roughly in the end of October, and we receive them December 1st from the propagation greenhouse when the plants are 35 days old. They come to us as small seedlings. They are delivered and placed onto the slab when they arrive here.
You’ve got extremely tall peppers and that’s one thing that I would never guess that a pepper plant would grow this tall because the ones in my garden do not. How long does it take to get peppers this tall and how do you get them this big?
These were planted on December 1st, and our first production starts at the end of February. To grow peppers this tall (10 feet plus), we are constantly removing branches off of the plant. So yours in your garden branches out into many stems and you have more of a horizontal growth. We keep it vertical by constantly pruning branches off. It doesn’t naturally wind upwards so employees are twisting a support string around the stem to keep the plant growing up.
We’ve got a flower up here. That’s going to be a pepper?
You can see on the flower we have the beginning stages and actually what you’re eating when you eat a pepper is the center, what they call peduncle. It’s the center part of the flower that will swell and become the fruit.
And then how long from flowering to picking?
From flower to picking is about eight and a half weeks. We usually start to count them when they are the same size as the end of our pinky finger. By then we know for sure the peppers will stay on the plant. It takes about seven weeks for pinky sized peppers to grow into full sized peppers.
How often are these plants being picked through?
Twice a week we go through and pick peppers. We pick them when they have about 90% color. They are allowed a little bit of green so that by the time it’s at the store, it’s fully coloured.
Can you tell me what the packet hanging on the pepper plants are?
In the greenhouse industry, we are sometimes accused of using chemicals quite heavily, but actually we reduced it a lot in recent years. No one wants to find insects in the peppers they are buying. Inside of here, the packet is a breeder system of a ‘good’ bug (insect) that will eat the eggs of a ‘bad’ bug. And so the good bugs crawl out of the hole and then they spread through the plants very quickly. We can eliminate the egg form of the bad bug, so it’s just basically good against bad. We buy the good bugs to fight off the bad bugs and, therefore, use very little chemical. This crop has not been sprayed as of yet and probably will only get one or two sprays in a whole year.
You say that people have this idea that you use a whole bunch of chemicals. Your goal is to not use very many?
I don’t say that we will never use it. Sometimes we have to deal with a spot of the bad bugs that’s too concentrated until the good bugs can overcome them. That is called a spot spray. That is done occasionally but very infrequently.
I got a comment from somebody that said, they don’t like buying greenhouse grown products because it’s not as natural because it’s not grown in soil and therefore it’s not as nutritious. Is that true?
We can take a look at what peppers are grown in. This one is actually grown in coco slabs, which is a growing media made from the husk of coconuts. So the coco comes in from Sri Lanka. It is dried, it is rinsed of salts because it is very high in salt. From there we begin to grow the plant, so this is a little bit more like soil than rockwool, which is another common growing medium made from rock-based mineral fiber.
We insert a dripper into the growing medium and this is how the water and nutrients get to the plant roots. We do use synthetic fertilizer and it is given to each plant. Every week I take the nutrition of what the plant would drain and what it receives, and from there I make a new recipe of plant nutrients every single week.
So you’re like a plant nutritionist.
I’m anything that needs to be done! The peppers grown in a greenhouse are just as nutritious because actually, there’s better CO2 concentrations in here. The light we are receiving, the temperature, everything is perfect for the plant to produce optimal sugars.
The only reason that you would perhaps taste a difference between greenhouse and field production is that field would go through a dry time and a wet time. So perhaps the concentration of sugar from field peppers is higher, whereas in a greenhouse setting we are giving enough water all the time. It’s optimal. So your sugars would just be more diluted inside of the fruit. The sugar concentration would be more accurate in greenhouse production because it’s so consistent. It’s perfect, every single day.
So, whether it’s greenhouse grown or field grown, it’s the same, it’s good for you. Eat your fruits and vegetables. We’ve moved from yellow peppers to the red pepper side of the greenhouse. And it’s picking time over here. How do you know when a pepper is ready for picking?
We’re looking usually for 90% color. We don’t want to ship it too green because by the time it gets in the store, we need it to be fully colored.
Now as we see there’s a few folks here picking today, but many are from other countries. Where are they from?
We have about 12 temporary foreign workers working here. We supplement local labor with offshore, in order to make sure all the work gets done. We work together to make it fair for both parties. It’s not easy for us to bring them in. We have to prove to the government of Canada that we cannot hire local people or that local people are unwilling to do the work. Then from there, the government will give us an allowance to bring in people and it’s very strictly regulated. Local workers are looking for a roughly 40 hour week with holidays and weekends off. So we try to give them that to make sure job satisfaction is there. Most of our offshore workers are looking for longer hours during their time in Canada. They are willing to work weekends and holidays and work roughly 50-55 hours per week.
It’s a misconception that we are not paying minimum wage to our offshore workers or we are in some way paying them less than Canadians. However, they are paid minimum wage, which is the law. We also pay for part of their housing and we pay a piece rate to everybody here. So, everyone works on a piece rate program. That means picking is paid per kg and pruning and wrapping would be done per stem. There’s a computer program where they log everything in and then we track and pay based on that so that our workers can make bonuses on top of their regular wage. So, there is an incentive to work quickly.
We have moved from the greenhouse to this packing room. What’s this fancy machine?
This is the pack line. Everything is packed onsite. Every box that leaves the facility is 5.1 kg. At the far end of the room there is a weigh scale where the bins are weighed and that’s how we can calculate our piece rates for the employees in the greenhouse picking.
The bin is emptied into the dumping station, goes across the line where they would be checked for any quality issues. From there, the computer has weigh cups that weigh each pepper and then we as a farm get paid based on size. So, the less peppers needed to make a box full, the heavier peppers, the more we get paid. Then as the peppers get smaller we get paid less. Many of the smaller peppers are used for bagging and that is where we get the mini sweets, but that’s done by the marketer.
Every pepper that leaves the facility has a product code on it. Or PLU, and that’s applied automatically and they have our company name on it along with our marketer.
Now, where could people find peppers from this greenhouse?
They are sold mostly locally, but as you are checking the store, you can see the code, in regular stores, Walmart or Superstore, Loblaws and Costco. We’ve got them all over the place. It just goes through a marketer. And then from there it goes to Toronto or wherever it needs to go.
Well, thanks for the tour, Joe.
View Fresh Air Farmer Andrew Campbell’s full video here