And it’s big – a $38-million greenhouse project spreading over 8.5 hectares. Inside, state-of-the art Dutch technology produces amazing results: 360 cucumbers per square metre, much more than the forecasted 275 per square metre.
It is now among the most productive greenhouse in Canada, says Eric Dubé, Toundra Greenhouse general manager, who compares the productivity to Québec’s (80 cucumbers per square metre) and Canada’s (200 cucumbers per square metre) averages. This means the production that started in November should reach a much bigger total than the 45 million cucumbers projected.
At the greenhouse open house in mid-December, everybody was celebrating the creation of 200 new jobs in this rural area. Local investors, Eric Dubé, and Caroline and Bertrand Fradette, are particularly thankful to Richard Garneau, CEO of Resolute Forest Product, who not only believed in the project, but also convinced his board to invest in the project to become a 40 per cent shareholder of Toundra Greenhouse.
Québec Premier Philippe Couillard, who also represents this riding in the provincial government, was also a key player in the project. “The government officials never saw a project like that before and all doors were closed at first, even when I was asking,” he said. We need to learn lessons and use this story as a case study to be more open to innovation, because we have great opportunities to innovate in rural areas.”
Indeed, the project had to go through many phases and countless problems before the first cucumber was harvested in November.
When I moved to St-Félicien, a town of 10,000 people about 450 kilometres north of Montreal in 2008, the agrothermic park idea dreamt by the local mayor was already a latent project looking for a promoter.
Gilles Potvin actually started dreaming about this back in 1989 when he was the town’s industrial commissioner. Back then, wood residues were a problem and people were looking for ways to use those to create value.
That’s when a cogeneration plant idea came up. The plan: turn the wood residues to power. A good but kind of wasteful idea when we know that 80 per cent of the power generated is lost in the form of heat.
Gilles Potvin then came up with the idea of an agrothermic park. The extra heat could be used as an industrial economic development lever to develop a 30-hectare greenhouse hub and a 20-ha industrial area for forest products.
At first, the project looked perfect, but as time went by, wood residues gained value and became scarce as more projects arose.
From $5/ton when the plant was built in 2000, the wood residue price reached $18/ton in 2006. And since the cogeneration plant negotiated a 25-year deal with Hydro-Québec at six cents per kWh, the plant’s future was shaken.
In 2009, St-Félicien received a $5 million subsidy to build the heat-transfer infrastructure from the cogeneration plant to a 28-ha field they bought across the street.
Many promoters evaluated the project but nothing was proposed. Who would make a big greenhouse investment that relies on an uncertain energy source?
But everything changed with the arrival of Eric Dubé, a Royal Bank investor from Montreal who moved to the region when the bank was heavily investing in local agricultural lands. After the bank changed its plans, Dubé stayed in the region to invest in a potato business and other agricultural projects.
He learned about the agrothermic park by talking with the mayor. This was a big and ambitious project he liked right away. He then met local investors Bertrand and Caroline Fradette, who owned a lumber mill in the 1970s, who were also interested.
In 2015, the cogeneration plant was for sale and they prepared to make an offer, but Enel Renewable Energy sold their 21-megawatt power plant to Greenleaf Power.
To find a reliable source of thermal energy they decided to look away from the cogeneration plant. Who was the other industrial partner with heat available nearby? The answer: Resolute Forest Product, with its pulp mill 15 kilometres from the downtown area.
When Dubé asked for a meeting with Richard Garneau, Resolute CEO, in February 2014, he was offered 10 minutes for his pitch. “We ended up spending an hour together. This was the beginning of a successful relationship.”
Stunned by the proposal to make a business partnership to grow cucumbers, Garneau readily asked, “Is there a market?” He needed this kind of information to convince the Resolute board to jump on board.
And Dubé replied quickly. In July, he came back with a Sobey’s promise to buy all their cucumber needs after meeting with Yvan Ouellet, Sobey’s procurement and merchandizing vice-president. “We believed in this bold and crazy project. And today, cucumbers produced here can be found in 450 points of sale in the province,” he said.
From then on, Resolute agreed to be a 40 per cent partner in the project and to allocate a field close to the pulp mill for the project, but Garneau stated his conditions. Local partners had to come up with a good business plan and use an efficient and recognized technology. The municipality also needed to be a partner and the workforce should be found locally.
The Sobey’s commitment was important, but the challenges were far from over. The agricultural zoning had to be changed. Local support was challenged when the mayor proposed investing millions of dollars in water supply infrastructure. Construction workers also protested when Dutch workers came to build the greenhouses.
But in the end, the project was completed on schedule and on budget.
In the greenhouses, an integrated computer system controls more than 700 environmental parameters, ranging from lighting, humidity, fertilizers and CO2 level controls. To improve plant growth, extra CO2, derived from natural gas combustion, is injected in the greenhouse, increasing the concentrations from 340 ppm to 800 ppm.
But that’s not all, since CO2 Solutions, a carbon capture specialized business, will build its first commercial $7.4 million project to feed the greenhouses with 30 tons of CO2 per day captured from the pulp mill, the equivalent of 2300 cars off the road. To do so, CO2 Solutions, which already has a 10-ton per day demonstration unit in operation, uses an enzyme-based proven technology, says Evan Price, the company’s president and CEO. The project will be completed in 2018.
And that’s not the only byproduct coming from the mill, since 25 per cent of the energy comes from the heat released in the pulp-making processes. The remaining energy comes from natural gas boilers.
The plants, which receive 20 hours/day of lighting, are irrigated and fertilized simultaneously and all elements not absorbed are recycled. Likewise, 98 per cent of the water is obtained from precipitation collected in basins or recycled through the recirculation system. Toundra does not use pesticides and relies on integrated pest management.
All of this is just the first phase of a $100-million-project covering 34 hectares planned over the next years. Hard to say when the next phases will be built, but the promoters are optimistic and other vegetables could be grown.
More good news for Toundra: Subway restaurants just signed a contract to supply 600 Québec and 250 Eastern Canada restaurants with Toundra cucumbers.
For Gilles Potvin, this project exemplifies the birth of a new ecological industrial era, where waste can become huge opportunities for others.
Guillame Roy is the editor of Opérations forestières et de scierie, a sister publication of Greenhouse Canada.