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Top 10 Under 40 award winners share a passion for plants

As in the previous two years of this program, we could easily have had a “Top Dozen” or so award winners. The quality of candidates was quite impressive, and whittling the nominations down to 10 was most challenging.

October 25, 2016  By Dave Harrison

November 2016 – They’re greenhouse vegetable growers, flower growers, specialty crop specialists or plant retailers, and they’re this year’s Top 10 Under 40 award winners. While they may have different crops or businesses, they all share the same passion for plants.

As in the previous two years of this program, we could easily have had a “Top Dozen” or so award winners. The quality of candidates was quite impressive, and whittling the nominations down to 10 was most challenging.

The winners were announced last month before a packed crowd at The Gathering reception of the Canadian Greenhouse Conference in Niagara Falls.


The Top 10 Under 40 program was again sponsored by Paul Boers Manufacturing and Prins Greenhouses. The program wouldn’t be possible without their support.

Without further adieu, here are this year’s award winners.

BRIAN BAIN, Ecobain Gardens, Saskatoon
Brian Bain is a horticulturist and the founder/owner of Ecobain Gardens, an urban vertical hydroponic farm in Saskatoon.

Ecobain Gardens’ products are produced 365 days a year in a completely controlled environment. Among products are living basil, dill, cilantro and mint in a bare root form, alongside its cut certified organic microgreens.

Bain started the company in December 2012 in a 1,300-square-foot warehouse in the north end of Saskatoon, growing hydroponic microgreens with two staff members. Sales took off quickly, and employment grew to five people in only a few months.

In April 2015, Ecobain moved into its new 6,000-sq.ft. location, and began expanding its product line to include living culinary herbs.

Its first crop of basil was successfully harvested in Week 21 in 2016, and over the last few months the company has been working with multiple new Canadian retail companies to list its four retail herb products as well as two cut microgreen products.

Ecobain currently has 11 full-time employees. It is preparing for expansion in 2017 to increase volumes, efficiencies and add three new products to its herb line.

There is considerable growth potential. The aspect of being a local producer in a market that almost always imports from great distances gives Ecobain a strong line into the market.

The biggest challenge has been logistics. The farm has four different stages of crops, and six cultivars growing at any given time. It harvests twice a week, and manages all seeding, transplanting (50,000 plants/month) and sales out of its single 6,000-sq.ft. facility.

“I feel food security is going to be one of our largest challenges for the human race over the next 100 years, and to think we are working hard everyday to help resolve this issue really motivates me and my team.

“I also really love the technology aspect as well,” Bain explains. “There are so many advancements being made in the field, and because of the nature of our farm, relationships with the IRAP/NRC, and the University of Saskatchewan, we are very tapped into these advancements.”

JULIE CLANCY, Belgian Nursery, Breslau, Ontario
Julie Clancy grew up in the family business, but has only been working in it full-time for 19 years, including the past 15 years as its manager/purchaser. Belgian Nursery is a retail only garden centre, growing over an acre of annuals – including over 8,000 hanging baskets and planters. Belgian also grows garden mums, primula and a select assortment of perennials, vines and shrubs.

“Year-round we offer customers the warmth and joyfulness of tropical houseplants, cacti and herbs,” she explains. “In addition, we offer an array of garden products and gift items bringing us perfectly into the Christmas season. Poinsettia, artificial trees, ornaments and fresh greens keep us busy.”

She welcomes the challenges in managing the business. “My responsibilities include, but are not limited to, purchasing for all aspects required for growing, as well as a wide assortment of perennials, shrubs and finished poinsettias. Human resources, managing staff, customer service and setting up displays are some of the other tasks.”

To keep up with trends, she relies on customer feedback during the spring, studies the catalogues, and talks to suppliers throughout the year. “And the best way is to trial plants in my own backyard at home and in the greenhouse.”

Remaining family owned is a big reason for its continued success. “We are all hands-on and work together to create a unique environment.”

What are the keys to training and motivating new employees to maintain high levels of customer service and crop quality, we asked. First and foremost, she says, you have to find the “right” people who are passionate about plants and customer service, and then you work with their strengths. She works hard to “keep the lines of communication open, which in turn creates engaged employees dedicated to quality plants and service.”

It’s an exciting and rewarding industry, she notes. “I love to see the overall process happen. The empty benches fill up over a few months and return to being empty in just a few weeks. One of my favourite things to see each spring is freshly germinated plants with their teeny, tiny baby heads getting their start on life!”

RYAN CRAMER, Big Marble Farms, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Ryan Cramer grew up in the industry, and enjoyed helping out in the greenhouse as a youngster.

“It has been 11 years since I decided to start working at my Dad’s farm, and seven years since we built the greenhouse that I co-own and operate.”

Big Marble Farms started out as County Fresh Farms in 2009 as a four-acre glass greenhouse with grow lights. It grew to 15 acres over the next four years and to 35 acres with a packing facility this year.

“All 35 acres have lights and we grow mostly cucumbers and mini-cucumbers and have recently added TOVs and beefsteak tomatoes.”

Every successful grower has a mentor or two to help in hurdling challenges. For Ryan, he’s enjoyed working closely with his dad, Albert, and his uncle, Rick Wagenaar, and the two of them have 50 years of combined experience in the industry. They are also his business partners at Big Marble Farms.

Cramer is a big believer in supplemental lighting, among other technologies.

“I think it is necessary for a label to have product available 12 months of the year, and the push is for locally grown product as well. My opinion on supplemental lighting is pretty clear, as 100 per cent of our operation has lights. I believe that supplemental lighting isn’t only for the winter months, but the shoulder months as well. We are able to grow a more consistent and premium product in the spring and fall in addition to the winter.”

The main reasons for the company’s success is the shared passion for the industry and their commitment to capitalize on opportunities to grow.

“Being a part of a business that is always growing is awesome,” he says. “Seeing the innovative potential in the industry makes the future very exciting. It’s always a sunny day at Big Marble Farms.”

PAUL DOEF, Doef’s Greenhouses, Lacombe, Alberta
Paul Doef helped out in the family greenhouse as a youngster, and has been working in it full-time since 2004.

Doef’s Greenhouses is a family run operation, and has long been regarded as one of the most progressive and innovative greenhouse operations in Alberta. It has five acres of lit cucumbers, four acres of mixed peppers (two lit, two traditional), two acres of lit tomatoes and a 300-square-metre lettuce pond.

“The key feature of our company is our year-round production,” Doef explains. “We supply local fresh produce to our wholesaler (Sunfresh Farms in Edmonton), our local marketing company (Pik-N-Pak Produce), and directly to customers at our farmers’ markets all year long.”

Most of the technological improvements have been geared to year-round production. “This comes with a lot of upfront costs, such as lights, energy curtains, buffer tanks, etc., and the operational costs are significant. As long as we have consumers who are looking to support their local farmers, we can continue to grow the food in the coldest and darkest time of the year.”

Continuing a family tradition set by his parents, Joe and Helen, Paul has served on the board of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association. He has been treasurer the past three years. He has also been the AGGA’s representative with many of the farm safety discussions over the past few years. “I decided to get involved because it is important to have contact with other growers in Alberta. It is good to create connections with other growers, and to get to know each other on a personal level. As a company, we feel it is important to have representation at the AGGA. If there are issues that greenhouses across our province are dealing with, we are always interested.”

And, of course, being a family business brings with it many advantages. “My Dad (Joe), my brother (Eric), and my brother-in-law (Phil Visscher) all bring different skills to the management group. We smooth out each other’s weaknesses. Of course there are times when things get tense, but so far nothing we can not resolve over a beer or two.”

DEBBIE FOISY, Debs Greenhouse, Morinville, Alberta
What makes a great garden centre? It’s much more than great plants, says Debbie Foisy.

“You have to have great plants, but what you also need is great marketing. With very strategic marketing we created a destination garden centre.”

She has created a strong brand. “I think it’s terribly important that all social media, especially Facebook and e-newsletters, have to come from yourself, they need to have a large personal component so that somebody becomes the face of the company. And that person becomes the brand of the company and in our case that’s me. I need to be on the sales floor when customers walk in.”

She has been the driving force behind the Greenhouse Marketing Forum, which has grown from its Alberta roots into many other regions. The idea for the Forum was launched in 2012 during a presentation by industry consultant Bill McCurry at the Green Industry Show.

“It has evolved into the go-to place for industry folks. There has been a tremendous amount of topics go through the forum, from selling used equipment to plant diagnostics.”

In 2013, she became president of the AGGA, the first president who was younger than the association itself.

That same year she won the Grower Of The Year award from the AGGA, and that was followed a year later with her selection as one of three finalists in the Dümmen Orange/Green Profit Young Retailer Of The Year awards program.

They recently moved the business from Wildwood, the town she grew up in (and knew everyone), to just outside of Edmonton.

She’s very confident in the business. “Recently someone asked me about the box store competition, as though it was a black cloud hanging over my head. My response was the opposite. They’ve got nothing on us, they can’t do what we do. I believe that we should quit worrying about them and focus on our place in the market.”

GREG MAGDA, Sedum Master Inc., Princeton, Ontario
One of the industry’s fastest growing segments is green roofs, and one of that sector’s leading companies is Sedum Master Inc. Company president Greg Magda has been a grower of sedum vegetation for the green roof industry for the past 14 to 15 years.

Sedum Master Inc. is a grower of numerous sedum vegetation products for green roof projects, including ground covers and landscaping. Sedum Master has mats (regular/lightweight), sedum minimats,

Sedum Master is now branching into retail sales. In the retail end of things,
sedum has become more popular in the last few years as people are becoming more aware of how versatile it is and the various varieties, colours and sizes. “As the weather is becoming hotter,” says Magda, “we are seeing more drought conditions, so the demand for sedum is becoming much greater.”

Sedum Master Inc. was built on a foundation of three generations of farming, which allows for years of vast knowledge in agriculture and growth. “With this knowledge and having a company run by a younger generation as well,” says Magda, “Sedum Master was open to new ideas and fresh thinking on new creations with tests and trials, and with a go get’em attitude.”

This is not the first award for the company. It received a 2013 regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. That award recognized their hard work in the green roof industry along with their efforts in the green wall industry as a new creative option for people to grow vegetables and fruit (vertical farming).

What’s the most exciting part of his job? “The people,” he says. “It’s great getting to know the various people throughout the industry with every project and question. Many dear friends have been made throughout the years through Sedum Master and everyone has a different story and walks a different path.”

CATHY OULTON, Bloom Greenhouse & Garden Centre, Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia
Cathy Oulton has developed a popular garden centre in a region with several nearby big box competitors. When it comes to plant quality and service, said her award nominator, Bloom Greenhouse & Garden Centre stands well above the crowd.

Oulton’s parents owned a wholesale nursery, so her passion for plants was rooted early. She has been working in the horticulture industry for 20 years.

“We started out just renting a yard to sell nursery stock and have grown to a greenhouse grower/retailer operation growing most of our own annuals and perennials,” Oulton explains.

Having big box stores nearby isn’t a major worry for her. “We are different from them in a lot of ways. We hire for people skills and plant knowledge and take every opportunity to educate our customers on how to garden successfully. Our location is a little out of the way so we know that our clients have sought out a different shopping experience by choosing to come to us. We strive to give them that.”

“Honestly, I love my job,” says Oulton. “Branding our company felt amazing. Putting up that sign by the road was an awesome feeling. This year we were able to put up two new growing houses and offer our own delivery service. I love to see our truck driving the roads with our logo on the side. It feels like a win every time.”

Social and web marketing is the way of the future,” she says. “We need to be present across all media forms for our customers to connect with our business. I think we all want to see the real people behind the businesses we deal with. Social media helps to make that connection.”

What keeps her energized throughout every day in the garden centre?

“I love connecting with people,” she says. “Having new customers come in that had never been to Bloom before makes me feel great. It means that word is getting out about what we do. And that is huge.”

CHRISTIE POLLACK, Christie’s Gardens and Greenhouses, High Prairie, Alberta
Christie Pollack has been working for 16 years in the industry, beginning with part-time work as a teenager in a local greenhouse. That opportunity definitely spurred her career choice.

“I knew I wanted to work in the industry and there were no greenhouses in the area. To begin, we built a business plan researching in detail all the components and costs.”

She went to Olds College and completed a diploma in production horticulture.

She says there are at least four essential components of a great garden centre. Included are exceptional customer service, great quality plants, a great team to work with (“because they are the face of your business”), and community involvement.

She has no hesitation when asked the main reasons for the success of the garden centre? “My team, the amazing people within the horticulture community in Alberta, my local community, and my constant desire for learning new things.”

Her employees are dedicated. “One of the tools I use is finding out what each employee’s natural strengths are. This helps us to better manage our team and keep people happy. We also try to spend time explaining gardening tips to our team so they can pass the information on to our customers.”

She’s already an industry leader in social media marketing, including an exceptional website. It’s all part of her game plan.

“I figured out in 2015 that our main demographic is 25- to 35-year-olds, and the thing that struck me the most was that people were telling me over and over that they couldn’t distinguish between the information that was usable for them and information that was for another area.”

And what are the highlights of her day?

“I love talking to my customers. I always say it’s important to listen to the questions they are asking. It’s free research! I take the most asked questions and transform them into a blog.”

JENNIFER SHEARDOWN, Waldan Greenhouses, Wainfleet, Ontario
Jennifer Sheardown, assistant grower at Waldan Greenhouses, has worked in the floriculture industry for about 12 years.

She handles much of the watering, including fertilizer and PGR application decisions. She trials new PGRs and combinations. She also maintains several of the records required for CFIA inspections.

Sheardown takes part in weekly meetings with consultants, sales reps and industry experts. She attends numerous workshops and conferences and takes notes to bring back for other growers unable to attend. She works as part of a team to design and implement research and development projects and is responsible for maintaining the records and measurements pertaining to them.

She also does insect scouting and maintains the banker plant/colemani system, and has a good understanding of the complexities of biological insect control.

She has always been fascinated by plants, which “stems (no pun intended) from a love of biology, of all living things. Plants are just much easier to work with.”

She has had several mentors, including company owner Dan Newhouse; Finn Klochmann Hansen, who works for Jepsen Queen Kalanchoe (their supplier of cuttings), “who spent a week in Denmark showing me the ropes of how to grow kalanchoes and who comes to visit twice a year and tweak our techniques with new technologies and ideas”; and IPM consultant Mike Short, “who is always ready to talk insects and biocontrol.”

Waldan Gardens is a great company to work for. “It has always been on the cutting edge of new technology, always striving to find new and better and more efficient ways of doing things.”

And the most exciting part of her career? “I love new things, be it good or bad, such as a new cultivar, a new strain, or a new colour of flower.

“And I was introduced to a new PGR for the kalanchoe, which may work as a stimulant and help with the plants being too small in low light conditions. I’m looking forward to giving that one a try this winter!”

ANDREA WESTRA, Van Geest Bros., Grimsby, Ontario
Andrea Westra grew up in the family cut flower business and has taken every opportunity to advance her managerial skills.

She has been working in the business full-time since 1998, and before that was often helping out during the summers and after school. Greenhouse horticulture is definitely in her blood.

She is a driving force with the company biocontrol program, and has attended numerous workshops to keep updated on the latest threats and control measures. She also works closely with IPM specialists to fine-tune the company’s program.

When it comes to pests, you can’t let your guard down even for a minute.

“Mealybug, whitefly, thrips, spider mite, aphids and leafminer are the major pests we face,” she says.

“Mealybug is the biggest issue, though we’ve had some success using cryptolaemus and it seem to be getting better results every year.”

What are the main reasons for their success with biocontrols?

“Teamwork is the big one. It helps that co-workers know the “good” bugs from the “bad” bugs and inform me when they see them. It’s also important to work with a bio company that is willing to work alongside you. Scouting is very important since new spots pop up all the time and if you catch it early it makes a big difference.”

Chemical sprays are not working any more, and resistance is a constant issue, she explains. Biocontrols are also safer for everyone involved.

And what keeps her energized every day on the job? “I love learning new things about bugs. I find it very interesting about how biocontrols work.

“And I really like the people I work with since they make the job so enjoyable.”

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