Diversification Into Niche Products
By Dave Harrison
January 2016 — On anecdotal evidence alone, the greenhouse industry had a pretty good year in 2015. Whatever trade show or industry workshop I was attending, growers, suppliers and industry specialists were virtually unanimous in giving the year a hearty “two thumbs up.”
And that consensus is reflected in this month’s “State of the Industry” report, researched by veteran Ontario freelancer Treena Hein. She interviewed specialists across Canada for their take on the industry’s economic pulse.
Our pundits were encouraged by continuing low natural gas prices, though acknowledging there will be renewed focus on renewable fuels (which is already underway in Quebec and the interest there in biomass heating). However, electricity prices in Ontario and British Columbia are restraining expansion plans by those hoping to light their crops for year-round production. That’s not the case in Quebec, where the provincial government is more supportive of lighting projects.
Energy pricing will be critical as the move towards more year-round production continues. It’s a response to market demands, and to the growing opportunities to supply the institutional sector.
One trend that continues to attract attention is with product diversification.
The big three of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are fine, but growers are testing the waters with niche products. Again, Quebec appears to be leading the way with a growing assortment of new greenhouse products, including Lebanese cucumbers, mache and napa cabbage, among others. Quebec is also a leader with organic greenhouse crop cultivation and marketing.
Rising labour costs are a common concern. Minimum wage hikes can stagger a small business, but they also encourage automation.
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Program (SAWP) is an essential resource, say those we contacted.
One key take-home message is the need to communicate with government. Ontario grower Gerard Schouwenaar says there is a strong need to “keep reminding government we are agriculture, because if we don’t, all the regulations relating to labour, the environment and so on will continue to pile up on us.
“We have to tell the good story that we are producing quality farm products, generating many dollars and taxes for the people and government, and caring about the environment. The more we can tell the good story of our agriculture sector to government and the public, the more it benefits us.”
Governments are generally supportive, but need constant reminders that agriculture has special economic needs, given its seasonality and ultra-slim margins. It needs to be consulted when legislation is proposed, and it needs the encouragement of “buy local” programs.
Without government support, “state of the industry” reports would be much less optimistic in the future.