By Dave Harrison
Another positive year for Leamington region
There may not be quite as much dust being kicked up on construction sites this year as in past years, but the greenhouse vegetable industry in the Leamington region remains quite busy.
It’s been ‘maintaining the momentum,’ as our cover headline notes.
The overall Canadian greenhouse sector – flowers and vegetables – has been dealing with a number of pressures of late.
The dollar continues its roller coaster ride of daily minor dips and increases, something quite unsettling for an industry that exports so much of its product. The loonie is currently hovering around the 90-cent mark compared to its U.S. counterpart, a major leap from levels just a few years ago. The Canadian dollar was as low as $0.6179 US in November of 2004.
The Ontario government didn’t make things any easier with its decision earlier this year to raise the minimum wage to $10.25 an hour within three years. “The government needs to look beyond the office towers in downtown Toronto when it makes decisions like this,” said Cole Cacciavillani, chairperson of The Ontario Greenhouse Alliance, “and carefully assess the impact on the agricultural and rural sectors of Ontario’s economy.” Phased in over three years, the increase represents a total increase of 28 per cent. “We don’t know of any business that can withstand that kind of increase to its primary cost structure,” said Cacciavillani.
Energy prices, though much higher than they were in the late 1990s, have cooled somewhat this past winter. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is no guarantee prices won’t soon rise again. Many Leamington area growers have invested in alternative heating systems and fuels, largely biomass systems, though even coal has made a comeback. There’s been increasing interest in curtains and other energy management programs.
The leading edge studies and advancements for which the Greenhouse and Processing Crops Research Centre in nearby Harrow is so well known internationally are continuing at a dizzying pace. Energy optimization studies, efficacy trials of reduced risk materials, management strategies for curtain applications in pepper greenhouses, and research to improve pollination levels in tomato operations are just a few of the projects underway. Each project will have a significant payback for the industry, providing important tools to help growers remain competitive. Having the centre so close to North America’s largest concentration of greenhouse vegetable production is a major boost to the region.
Also encouraging has been the introduction of more alternative crops and varieties, including specialty tomatoes, eggplants and beans. “Diversification is a big part of the industry today,” said manager/grower Rob Mastronardi of Cedar Beach Acres, located just off Lake Erie in Kingsville. “To put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak, is a thing of the past.”
Cedar Beach offers good examples of some of the changes underway in the region. They’ve built entirely with glass, have diversified their tomato operation with peppers, are trialling new crops (roma-on-the-vine, cocktail tomatoes and eggplant), and have the option of burning coal, in addition to natural gas and oil. Oh, and they’re considering the installation of wind turbines to supply power for their irrigation and boiler room motors.
With all the obvious success of the industry, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes. Similar to the role Flowers Canada Growers plays for floriculture, the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers is involved in a host of initiatives that keep its 10-person board and staff of eight specialists quite busy. OGVG is involved in research coordination, food safety program implementation, government liaison efforts, and consumer marketing campaigns, to name a few responsibilities.
The Ontario industry has adapted to market changes. It is applying innovation to cushion its challenges. It’s continuing to seek out new opportunities. In short, it’s well poised for many more years of ‘maintaining the momentum.’