Doing their homework

June 20, 2012
Written by Rosanna Parry
With a footprint of less than one acre, Fred and Pat Gittings have successfully developed Grandora Gardens into a thriving greenhouse vegetable business.

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Pat and Fred Gittings of Grandora Gardens.

 
Doing their homework on new businesses, quite literally, convinced them to get into farming.

During his last year of MBA studies at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Fred enrolled in a New Venture Start-Up course. He and two agriculture students developed a proposal for the start-up of a vegetable greenhouse.

Fuelled by Fred’s enthusiasm, Pat was soon convinced their future lay in farming. Pat left her job in communications at Cameco, the uranium company, and together with Fred launched Grandora Gardens.

LOCATED CLOSE TO MAJOR URBAN MARKET
■ They owned 40 acres of land about a half-hour drive west of Saskatoon. This location, being so close to an urban market, was a major factor in their decision.

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Taking a closer look.
 
The biggest challenge out of the gate was their lack of experience. However, they dove right in, absorbing as much information as they could by visiting other greenhouses on tours hosted by the Canadian Greenhouse Conference and the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association. This information was then extensively tested in their greenhouse and fine-tuned for their conditions.
As proper climate control is critical, they learned about heating and cooling, water, fertilizer, light and CO2 by attending conferences and talking with as many people as possible. They started with a 2,880-square-foot, double-poly greenhouse, expanding about every two years as demand for their produce grew along with their confidence in operating a greenhouse.

FLEXIBLE WORKING HOURS A GOOD LABOUR INCENTIVE
■ Another challenge was the difficulty in finding good employees. That obstacle was largely overcome by offering stay-at-home parents flexible working hours, and giving them weekends off. That strategy has worked well. Today they have a dedicated staff, including some who have been with them for more than 10 years.

Marketing proved to be both a joy and a challenge. In the early years, much of their time was taken up educating consumers about the benefits of eating locally grown food. While that continues to be an integral part of their philosophy, the public’s desire for local food has made the task of educating much easier.

SALES VIA FARMERS’ MARKET, GROCERY CHAIN AND ON-FARM
■ Although sales at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market account for more than 75 per cent of revenues – they’ve been members since 1990 – they have also built a relationship with Saskatoon Co-op grocery stores in which their cucumbers and tomatoes are sold under the Grandora Gardens brand.

Regular contact with local restaurants includes a summer lunch and tour, the most recent of which attracted 23 chefs.

Pat and Fred attribute much of the success of their thriving business to its uniqueness. They grow, pick and market the produce themselves. Direct marketing ensures immediate customer feedback. Saturdays usually feature long queues of customers throughout the day.

Other factors contributing to Grandora Gardens’ success include rigid quality control measures, a diversified product line, and their adaptability to changing demographics.

WIDE SELECTION OF VEGETABLES GROWN
■ After much trial and error, their product line now includes six kinds of tomatoes, long English and baby cucumbers, four kinds of bell peppers, and 11 varieties of chili peppers.

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Lineups are common throughout the season.
 
The Gittings are enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of their labour! From humble beginnings as growers, they have coaxed and nurtured their business with great enthusiasm. Grandora Gardens is well known by Saskatoon foodies.

What will the picture look like five years down the road? Pat suggests that there will be more automation of their operation, coupled with less work for them as they work to train someone to manage the business. On the cusp of retirement – they recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary – they look forward to having more time for leisure activities (and fewer hours in the greenhouse).


Rosanna Parry is a freelance writer and photographer in Saskatoon.

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