If you were not able to experience it firsthand during last week's Greenhouse Conference: Canada is on its way to become a greenhouse superpower. Not only in Ontario, where construction in the Leamington and Niagara areas is in full swing, but also in provinces like Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia growers aren't sitting still. The augmentation of the greenhouse acreage goes hand in hand with the introduction of innovative techniques and during the Canadian Greenhouse Conference we learned about the latest tricks of this trade.
Berries, Marijuana, Locally Grown, Energy Efficiency, Automation. These four keywords are closely connected to the opportunities in the Canadian greenhouse industry. As a result of these key developments, the industry is more vibrant than ever. Here is a summary of these trends, the opportunities and their challenges.
Canada and an increasing amount of states in the U.S. legalized cultivation of medical marijuana. As Canada is also subject to anticipated legalization of recreational marijuana in July 2018, many companies are seeking to become a licensed producer. While the industry is relatively new and still figuring out what eventually will become the best cultivation concept, greenhouses are currently the most obvious production method. Huge investments are therefore often related to transforming existing greenhouse space into cannabis production, but also constructing completely new greenhouses.
During the Canadian Greenhouse Conference bus tour on Tuesday Oct. 3 we were welcomed at the production facilities of Aphria, the former Leamington flower grower that transformed its flower greenhouses into a state of the art regulated medical marijuana production facility.
The 100,000 square foot greenhouse currently harvests 150 kg a week (which equals a weekly turnover of roughly $ 1.5 million....) and is expanding significant to a total of 1,000,000 square feet as we speak.
Big expansion on the way for Leamington marijuana grower Aphria
During the visit we could see how challenging it can be to be a regulated marijuana producer; almost no crop protection is allowed and growers largely depend on biological integrated pest management. Furthermore the producer needs to meet strict and very specific Health Canada regulations that require heavy investments in safety and security. Next to this the production model is subject to comprehensive registration and traceability policies.
Challenge: Since their industry has just seen the daylight, marijuana growers are still figuring out what will become the most common production system. Vertical, indoor, greenhouse, closed, semi-closed, gutters, or bench systems? Time will tell what works, and what not.
Yes, Canadian greenhouse growers are operating in a market that provides them with excellent marketing opportunities. But on the other side their cost of production is also under constant pressure as a result of the recently introduced carbon tax and the rising cost of energy. More growers are interested in optimizing their energy usage, which creates work for energy consultants and speeds up the introduction of energy efficient technology. The expansion of local power grids and supply of natural gas furthermore increases the opportunities for cogeneration and provides room for other sustainable incentives related to residual heat and biomass projects.
Challenge: Many old greenhouse operations still have a long way to go to become energy efficient. Newer and recently built operations, however, have many options to become more energy efficient, if not held back by local infrastructure.
Automation was also a hot topic at the conference. Due to tighter borders and a significant lack of skilled, motivated workers, growers are facing serious labour shortage. Reasons for them to investigate automation and robotics. Suppliers of logistic systems, packing lines, horticultural machinery and even machine vision technology all said they're drowning in work.
Advanced robotics at Mucci Farms.
A good example of advanced labour saving automation could be seen at Mucci Farms during the pre-conference Bus Tour. Mucci has made significant investments to automate the packing process of its cocktail and mini cucumber packs. Four camera vision supported robot arms are placing the cucumbers on trays based on a high speed analysis process that scans the cucumbers on size and fruit quality. These robots allow Mucci not only to replace a vast amount of workers, but also let them increase the quality of its sorting and define the selection criteria for each individual customer.
Challenge: Suppliers of automation are currently tackled by the request of growers to automate whatever is possible. The supply can hardly meet the demand and as technologies like machine vision and artificial intelligence are also just around the corner, a lot of teething problems currently still occur.
Over the last couple of years, the 'locally grown' topic has been the main driver of the expansion of the U.S. and Canadian greenhouse acreage. And today it still is. Especially now that NAFTA related influences gave a new impulse to the desire to produce locally as much as possible. The larger U.S. and Canadian produce growers and shippers explore the opportunities, but also small scale family companies are building a significant market share to supply local farmers markets, retailers and specialty stores.
And last but not least; the unstoppable interest to grow berries in high tunnels, polyhouses and glasshouses. Canadian, U.S. and also Mexican growers are eager to explore these opportunities due to the growing interest in soft fruit and the increasing challenges that open field production is subject to. Perhaps this is why we spotted more suppliers of berry related starting materials, technology and supplies at the trade show floor. There is a lot of interest in berry-related seminars and cultivation short-courses to get into berries, but also serious investments in greenhouse production have already been made by growers like Mucci Farms, who are currently operating one of the largest greenhouse strawberry glasshouse in Ontario.
Challenge: While they can rely on a lot of knowledge and experience from growers in Europe, berry growers in the U.S. and Canada are still challenged to find the right varieties and starting material that can meet their climate and market situation.
We can conclude by saying that the 38th edition of the Canadian Greenhouse Conference was a very interesting one. The well visited event sparked many conversations and it was good to see that so many things are happening and that suppliers and greenhouse constructors can hardly keep up with the demand. We bumped into many greenhouse growers who visited the event, but also met with a few greenhouse-minded government officials who confirmed commitment to support the burgeoning industry. This confirms that Canada (and the U.S.) is definitely a region to keep an eye on for those who not already did.