Growing in the Green: Synergized for success

March 20, 2013
Written by Melhem Sawaya
Determination, hard work, and the ability to minimize mistakes while learning from the ones that happened – coupled with considerable family involvement – have helped Scott Street Greenhouses grow into an industry leader.

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(Left to right) Tom, Rita and Gord, with Steve and his son Caleb, and Mark and his son Luke, at home in the greenhouse.
PHOTOS BY MELHEM SAWAYA


 
The Niagara region company began in 1972 with a 32,000-square-foot greenhouse. Market-driven expansions saw the business grow to 235,000 square feet in 2010, followed by another acquisition of 130,000 square feet in 2012, taking it to its current 365,000 square feet.

It all started in 1951 when Tom Valstar came to Canada. He worked in the nickel mines for two years, earning $60 a week. However, he left this job to move to St. Thomas to work for a farmer who paid him $90 a month. Why? Well, despite the lower rate of pay, the move was well worth it because he was now living close to his girlfriend, Rita! They had been neighbours in Holland and attended the same school. The two were married in 1954!

Tom and Rita soon moved to Elliot Lake. They lived in a motor home, and Tom was employed driving machinery in the uranium mines.
After two years, they moved to St. Catharines with their motor home in which they lived for a number of years. Tom drove truck for a coal company for the next 15 years, a job that paid about $48 a week.

In 1972, they bought the Scott Street Greenhouses facility. While Tom continued to drive truck for another year, Rita and the kids (Gord, Shirley and Joyce) took care of the lettuce, tomato and cucumber crops.

Paul Boers, a family friend and greenhouse structures supplier, was hired to build an 18,000-square-foot, aluminum-rafter greenhouse for them. This was one of the first greenhouses built with aluminum – before that, all rafters were made of wood.

For a few years, the budget was particularly lean. The family lived in a modest, 700-square-foot house. There was not much money to go around, but the whole family pitched in to do whatever was needed. The kids helped in the greenhouse when not in school.

That first year, high winds damaged 2,200 panes of glass in one storm. Not long after, a fire in a neighbour’s barn caused a large number of panes to break, as the heated panels were drenched with cold water from the fire hoses.

Yes, that is how the Valstars were welcomed to the greenhouse industry!

However, they were not discouraged. And their perseverance paid off, as the business grew steadily over the years to its current size of 365,000 square feet, one of the largest greenhouse floriculture operations in the province.

Tom is not afraid of trialling new things. If he knew of someone growing a certain crop, or growing a crop a certain way, he’d try it himself. Nothing was off limits. He grew plants in banana crates to take to market, as just one example!

Tom, age 80, and Rita, who will turn 80 in April, are both very thankful and blessed with every aspect of their journey together. Tom still rides his bike to the greenhouse each morning to admire the crops the second and third generations are growing with great success.

Gord began working in the greenhouse full time as a teenager after he worked in a few other operations. He has mastered every job in the operation, being taught by his dad and consultant Dick Veerman.

Gord and Wilma were married in 1979. Wilma had worked in a few other greenhouses before they were married, and that experience helped the business grow. She coordinates the work of ordering plant and seed material, and also handles the books.

During our interview, Gord reflected on the different ways they’ve done things and how it has changed. For example, soil mixing began first with shovels, before moving to a rototiller, then a cement mixer, next a snow blower mounted on a tractor, and then a front-end loader.

Gord took over the business from his dad 16 years ago, but Tom still likes to be involved. The two joke that while they may have different opinions on how to accomplish certain things, the job always gets done!

Gord has learned a lot from his dad, and now he gets to work with his two sons, Steve and Mark … the third generation in the business!
Gord took the greenhouse to a higher level. Now Steve and Mark are setting the bar even higher!

Steve began working full time at the greenhouse in 1998 after finishing high school. He started by taking care of plants and now his main responsibility is production.

Steve learned by looking, asking, listening and acting … what I call the LALA theory. Steve loves his job and especially loves working with family.

In addition to his abilities as a grower, Steve is great with tractors and trucks. Gord said Steve used to back a tractor and trailer the length of the greenhouse … with only about 10” of clearance. Steve even got his AZ driving licence at age 19.

Steve’s wife, Lori, worked full time in the greenhouse until their son Caleb was born.

Mark joined the business full time in 2004. He has handled a variety of responsibilities, and now does most of the material ordering and crop scheduling, with Steve’s input. Mark also takes care of the transportation logistics and sales.

Mark is passionate about what he is doing and can’t imagine doing anything else. His wife, Jackie, is a substitute teacher trying to get a full-time teaching position. Like his brother, Mark is a keen student of greenhouse horticulture and enjoys its daily challenges.

I have worked with the Valstar family for over 20 years. I know they all share a passion for the business and are continually searching for new ways and products to improve the business and ensure their customers enjoy premium quality plants grown in the most efficient manner.

I have worked with all three generations and they are so supportive of each other. Each has his or her responsibilities, and they cover for each other during vacations and other family events.

I’m definitely impressed when I hear a father asking one of his sons what he wants him to do when the son is away for a holiday. That’s when I know that the father is doing a great job in delegating freely, gladly and with guidance!

Gord said it very clearly that if the kids did not want to join the business, the business would have been put up for sale a long time ago.
Scott Street Greenhouses is one of those operations in which family life is certainly a synergy to the success of the business!


Melhem Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management is a consultant and research coordinator to the horticultural industry. Comments always welcome; please e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or visit www.focusgreenhousemanagement.com.

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