By Andrew Campbell
*Update: A large part of their greenhouse burnt down in 2019. Farmers are resilient and Pioneer Flower Farms has rebuilt. Learn more.
When it comes to a family farm, usually we think of a business that is growing something for our plate. The reality is that farms can produce more than just food. Grain can be used for things like plastics or fuel, sheep can produce wool for us to wear, and the vast majority of the flowers you find at your local store aren’t coming from the wild. Instead those flowers are carefully grown and harvested on a farm.
There are over 1500 farms in Canada that are part of the floriculture industry, which is the part of agriculture involved in the cultivation of flowers. Some are grown in fields, but farms like Pioneer Flower Farms grow a large amount of their product under the glass roof of a greenhouse. At this flower farm, there are some 40 million tulips that are cut in the late winter and early spring, along with other flowers like sunflowers, irises, hyacinths and daffodils to be sold in Canada and the United States at grocery stores, flower shops and more. Come and see where that beautiful bouquet of flowers may have come from and how particular a flower farmer is to making sure that the bloom you see lasts as long as possible.
This is a little bit different because we’re not actually making anything that’s going to be dinner, Mica.
Mica, your family farm is actually a flower farm. What flowers are you growing here?
We mostly grow tulips. We also grow spring bulbs such as hyacinths, daffodils, and irises as well. But tulips is the main business. We grow about 40 million tulips in a year.
That’s an incredible number. Where do your bulbs come from?
We import the bulbs from either the Southern hemisphere countries or from Holland. We plant the bulbs into crates. About 100 to 105 bulbs will go into one crate and then they go in the cooler for about 18 weeks. Tulips need a dormant period before they will grow and bloom. Once we bring them out of the coolers, the bulbs think it is spring and will start growing.
These bulbs must think it’s spring because they’re starting to sprout.
Yes. We check the coolers often to ensure the bulbs are in the right stage, to make sure that the soil is wet enough that they are growing in the cooler and then we adjust the temperature from there. We warm the cooler from 0 C to 1C to encourage them to sprout.
Can you basically control when they do come up based on your customer demand?
Yes. We have early flowering varieties that we use in January, and we also have late varieties that usually flower better in May. Then we mimic spring when we want them to flower. Sometimes bulbs will have 17 weeks of cooling period, but sometimes they might have 20 weeks of dormant cooling period.
How long does it take to get from mimicking early spring conditions to almost blooming? And why is a tulip greenhouse a cooler greenhouse than many vegetable greenhouses?
It takes about 11 days to flower at 16 C. Tulips are a spring flower, so they do better in colder temperatures. We also want the tulips to stretch so that the customer has a lot of stem length so they can put them in a vase or bouquet.
You also have a lot of gorgeous hanging baskets. What is your plan for them?
It’s an extra crop that we do. We specialize in spring bulbs, but at the end of May, my husband and his brother like to do something else so they sell hanging baskets.
We are in a different part of the greenhouse where we’ve got tulips that are showing pretty nice blooms here. How close are these to being picked?
These have actually already been picked once, so we have to pick them one more time to get the other blooms. We usually pick the crates between one to three times to make sure that we get all the flowers at their correct stage of flowering. You can pick them too soon, then they won’t flower. And if you pick them too late, then you won’t have a great flowering lifetime in your home.
You want them to flower when I take them home, not here in the greenhouse. How do you pick tulips and how do they get packed away?
We pick all the tulips by hand with some mechanical help. We pull the whole plant out of the mixture of sand and soil that they are planted, so they’re easy to pick out. Then they get put on a belt and we have two machines that will automatically look at the size, the colouring, the openness and the length of the flower and sort and package them accordingly.
That machine’s basically going to match tall ones with tall ones, short ones with ones, that kind of thing. How many tulips can the packing machine do?
They can do up to 16,000 stems an hour and that’s when we really have to push hard, but we average about 12,000 stems an hour.
Wow. That’s moving a lot of tulips in a short amount of time. And you’re running 24 hours a day this time of year?
This time of year we are running 24-7, because we just can’t keep up during the day.
Where do these tulips go? Where can people find tulips from your place?
We sell tulips in Canada and also in the United States. We have grocery stores that buy them, we have a wholesaler that buys them, and we have florists that buy them as well. There’s lots of people that will buy from us. And also in the States, there’s lots of grocery stores that will buy them.
So really, I can go to the grocery store on my way home tonight, pick up tulips and chances are I’m getting them from your family farm, which happens to be a tulip farm. Thanks Mica for the tour.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer, Andrew Campbells full video here