Growing into niche markets: Smaller operations have plenty of room to grow in Leamington area

June 09, 2008
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When you think of greenhouse vegetable operations in the Leamington/Kingsville region of southwestern Ontario, you tend to think of sprawling individual ranges of 10 or 20 acres – or more – of production. Rows extending out towards the horizon, or so it would seem! That’s certainly the typical image that’s evolved over the past decade or so.

Tomanelli Farms of Kingsville, however, is proof positive there is room for smaller growers as well. The key is being able to adapt to market conditions.

Perfect snack size; (bottom) Filomena and Pietro Tomanelli, of Tomanelli Farms.
Pietro Tomanelli began growing full time in the family’s Seacliffe Drive facilities in 1992. He’s the only year-round employee, though he is ably assisted each year by offshore employees and by family members when their schedules permit.

Tomanelli Farms began with 38,000 square feet of vegetables and 17,000 square feet of flowers. However, market conditions soon prompted a gradual conversion of the farm to focus only on tomatoes. Now 2.5 acres in size, its about a third the provincial average size of vegetable greenhouses. 

Tomanelli Farms is definitely market driven. Not wanting to put too many eggs – or in this case, tomatoes – in one basket, it’s become quite diversified. Slightly more than half the range is in beefsteak tomatoes, and the remainder in cocktail and grape varieties.

The percentages could change in future years, he noted during my mid-April tour. “You have to respond to what consumers want.” Niche products are a growing segment of the tomato market. “We may start growing more cocktail tomatoes or grape tomatoes.”

The market for grape tomatoes, especially, is growing each year. “Growers have to look at new opportunities with the specialty crops.”

Assisting when she can is his wife, Filomena, a flower grower at the nearby Yoder Canada greenhouses. Pietro also grew for Yoder for many years, before deciding to set up the family farm.

The two immigrated to Canada from Argentina many years ago, and both have extensive horticulture backgrounds. However, while Filomena has always been involved with flowers, Pietro has primarily grown vegetables.

Large or small, there are many business advantages to operating a greenhouse in the Leamington area, Pietro explained. “There are a lot of services for growers here. Everything is close by, including the suppliers and the packing houses.” Access to U.S. markets is only minutes away.

A closeup view of part of the crop.
Pietro Tomanelli with a cluster of tomatoes. Niche products are proving popular as snack foods.
However, the industry is facing many challenges, including the loonie at or near par. The dollar may drop, but he doubts it will ever settle again to the mid-60s exchange rate level it was just a few years ago.

Rising energy prices remain a concern. Natural gas is his preferred heating fuel. It’s clean and easy to use. He was able to lock into a long-term gas contract at a reasonable rate, so that’s provided some breathing room. “I know what my heating costs will be for a few years.”

He uses steam heat. He appreciates the fact it ramps up the heat quite quickly throughout the farm’s three zones. Converting to a hot water system would be an expensive investment, though operating costs might be a little cheaper than steam.

Produce prices have not kept pace with production costs. Growers must incorporate new technologies and efficiencies to increase yields, and Tomanelli Farms is no exception. New greenhouses built during their most recent expansion ensure better climate control with improved insulation qualities. The farm also has a state-of-the-art fertilizer/nutrient injection system along with improved water management equipment to enhance crop quality and yields.

Interplanting results in less downtime between crops. Liquid CO2 is used to promote better plant growth. Their trough system is being extended throughout the farm. “Once completed,” said Filomena, “the troughs will save on water and fertilizers.”

Their environmental control computer takes some of the guesswork out of growing. It continually and accurately monitors changes in temperature and humidity in order to optimize environmental conditions by opening or closing vents. It also measures solar radiation, and uses these measurements, along with a timer, to operate the fertigation unit.

Pietro has witnessed many industry changes over the past dozen or so years.

Automation is much more prevalent, and technology is constantly improving. Breeders are continually improving varieties for enhanced quality, yields and disease resistance.

It’s not easy being a small grower; there are not the same economies of scale to buffer the costs that the larger farms enjoy.

But Pietro said he would find it difficult working at anything else. “If I had it to do over again, I would still choose to work with plants. It’s what I enjoy most.”

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