Top 10 Under 40 winners take farming to the top
This year’s Top 10 Under 40 winners came from across the nation, including not only greenhouse vegetable and flower growers, but indoor farming as well.
Whether it’s an insatiable appetite for knowledge or a drive to innovate, their nominators’ comments – as well as their own – reveal exactly why these winners earned a top spot. Thank you to Paul Boers and Prins Greenhouses for their generous support of the awards this year.
Lake Erie Farms Inc.
Norfolk County, ON
Henry Friesen is the greenhouse manager at Lake Erie Farms. His hard work and endless dedication have not gone unnoticed.
“He epitomizes the employee that every employer hopes to have in that he runs the business as if it were his own,” says Jessie Witzel, agribusiness manager at Lake Erie Farms. “He takes pride and ownership in everything he does, and instills that, along with his amazing work ethic to all his staff.”
Managing crop after crop along with other expansion and retrofit projects, Friesen’s devotion to the operation shows.
“I come from a farming background, my Dad always loved farm work and I guess I do as well,” he says. “My summer breaks were always spent on farm work, when I finished high school I knew I wanted to stay on with farming”
While exploring tobacco production, he applied for an opening in the greenhouse division. What started as a three-month trial become eleven years, and he’s still enjoying every minute of it.
“… if it hadn’t been for [Lake Erie Farms] I really don’t know which path I would’ve taken,” he says. “All my knowledge and experience I have and will be taking with me, they gave me the opportunity to learn and it is greatly appreciated.”
A community leader in Norfolk County, Norfolk agriculture and the Mennonite Community of Southern Ontario, he’s got a lot on his plate, but his children keep him going. “Seeing the joy on their faces when we walk through the greenhouse on a Sunday afternoon to check up on the plants… and seeing them grow as I grow a crop in the greenhouse is just priceless.”
Ecobain Naturals/Ecobain Gardens
Roberta Bain is chief operations officer at Ecobain Naturals / Ecobain Gardens, an indoor herb producer. Successfully managing the operations, logistics and consumer relations of this fast-growing, technologically-challenging company, Bain still manages to make work fun.
“Roberta has helped create an amazing space that allows employees to flourish in their roles, grow personally, and she somehow managed to keep everyone laughing during the process,” says husband and CEO Brian Bain.
With a dramatic rise in sales over the past two years, high employee retention rates and strong relationships with retailers, their team has never been more cohesive and motivated. And she’s accomplished all this with limited capital, little farming experience and the odds stacked against her.
“I started in this industry because of my husband Brian Bain,” says Bain. “The reason for my shift to farming is that it feeds my soul. Feeding people clean food, close to home and working with an incredible team that wants to challenge the regular way of thought make my job not feel like a job.”
“We have many social missions within our company,” she adds, “and the thought of making any of those successful is absolutely satisfying.”
Sherwood Park, AB
Steph Bach is chief scientific officer at NutraPonics, an indoor vertical aquaponics operations. After completing her graduate degree in 2011, she spent several years working in and around the agricultural industry.
“After moving to Alberta, I met many key players in the organic and conventional agricultural industry,” says Bach. “Shortly afterward, I learned about an indoor vertical farming company operating in the local area.”
First brought on by NutraPonics as the lead plant scientist, her determination and drive quickly led to her promotion into a chief managerial position. Also serving as the point person of the indoor operation, she provided structure and process to the farm and farm staff.
“During this time, she had to face unexpected setbacks including power outages and the shuffling of employees,” says Derek Rolston, chief design officer at NutraPonics. “She met these challenges head-on and still managed to maintain consistent quality in our products as well as in the research performed at the farm all while balancing the health of our fish and plants. Now, nearly two years later, the farm is operating better than it ever has.”
Alongside their chief executive officer, Bach is helping guide NutraPonics to their next chapter by managing the company’s scientific research, production work, farm-related activities, and outreach and extension program.
“Knowing that I am contributing to agricultural efforts that can sustainably support our growing global population is what keeps me going every day,” she says. “Seeing the smiles on our clients’ faces is the icing on the cake.”
Ontario Plants Propagation
St. Thomas, ON
Andrew Heinen is head grower at Ontario Plants Propagation. He first started as a general labourer at Ed Sobkowich Greenhouses at the age of 16, learning all the nuances of running a greenhouse – soil mixing, transplanting, irrigation, spraying, shipping, maintenance and everything else in between. He then spent 10 years growing flowers at Creekside Greenhouses – first as an assistant grower, then as head grower.
“My mother insisted that my first job was in a greenhouse because it would teach me the value of good hard honest work,” he says. “Little did she know it would become a life-long career in the greenhouse.”
Taking a keen interest in crop growing and greenhouse climate control, he graduated from the horticultural technician’s program at Niagara College and eventually became part of the program’s advisory committee.
“Andrew has always strived to enhance his knowledge and skills, in both floriculture and vegetable greenhouse areas,” says wife Dawn Heinen. “He possesses an innate ability to understand the nuances and larger scope of the plant life he is cultivating.”
Always looking to further his greenhouse knowledge, he took on the position of senior grower at Ontario Plants Propagation, working with hydroponic vegetable transplants. After three years, he was promoted to head grower.
“Growing is a rewarding career whether you’re growing flowers for the garden or putting veggies on people’s plate, it’s something to be proud of.”
Emma Johnston has been a supervisor at Jeffery’s greenhouses for several years.
Known to colleagues as a passionate and effective leader, she inspires and helps her team successfully grow annual bedding plants for Home Depot. Johnston has also demonstrated her ability to take on new challenges, running this year’s poinsettia trials for instance and temporarily filling in for the production manager on a leave of absence.
“She has put in really long hours,” says former co-worker Maxine Murphy, “working 7 days a week to make sure that the growing [department] kept running smoothly as usual and making sure that nothing fell through the cracks while leading the production team.”
Growing up in Niagara on a 25-acre fruit and vegetable farm, Johnston’s first part-time job outside of the family business was at a local greenhouse.
“I had many opportunities as I graduated high school but I was confused about how to proceed,” she says. “I decided to follow what I knew and loved, I attended the horticulture program at Niagara College.”
Knowing the dynamic nature of the greenhouse industry, Johnston places a big emphasis on learning and mentoring.
“I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to work with growers with years of experience in both perennial and annual production and have tried to gain as much as possible,” she says. “I feel it is just as important to continue the cycle and help others learn.”
Jennifer McIntosh is head grower at Meyers Flowers.
“Perhaps you could say I stumbled upon the greenhouse industry by mistake,” she says. “An appreciation for plants was instilled early in my life. However, it wasn’t until a summer job working in a garden centre and a family friend recommending University of Guelph’s diploma horticulture program that I considered a career in this industry.”
Graduating in 2002, she then began her career as a flower grower and has since worked in a number of different greenhouses, going from assistant grower to head grower.
From ensuring daily crop requirements to creating and implementing IPM programs, colleagues have recognized her expertise in greenhouse operations. She takes an active part in creating crop schedules and production plans, delegates responsibilities and isn’t afraid to implement new ideas and strategies for improving efficiencies, raising quality standards and reducing costs.
“Jennifer has a passion for growing plants and runs accurate crop trials like the one on cyclamen,” says Mel Sawaya of Focus Greenhouse Management. “And most importantly, she is a great communicator and you always know what she’s thinking of.”
With a true love for this industry, McIntosh is driven by every aspect of her job – the people, the challenges and new ideas.
“I feel that there is great potential and many possibilities in this field,” she says. “I am grateful to be able to do what I love.”
St. Catharines, ON
Nicole Radke is the vendor managed inventory (VMI) specialist at Jeffery’s Greenhouses. She first started at Jeffery’s as a seasonal student on spring break 14 years ago, returning each season throughout her post-secondary studies.
Studying business administration and marketing at Niagara College at the time, one of her courses offered a co-op placement. “That is when Barbara Jeffery took me under her wing in the sales department and kick started my career in the horticultural industry,” Radke says.
“Nicole embraced the very novel concept of vendor managed inventory,” says Albert Grimm, head grower at Jeffery’s. “In those years, the company had its first exposure to this marketing platform and everything was new, uncertain, and difficult.”
Methods and procedures had to be developed and tested – some worked and some didn’t. The process transformed how planning, production, growing, shipping and marketing had to go about their jobs, says Grimm.
Embracing the opportunity to learn about production processes, horticulture and greenhouse logistics, she worked the farm floor, first observing how different departments interacted and relied on one another, then becoming a liaison between them.
“Her function became very important in our task of bringing our product to a new market in a manner that helps consumers become more successful,” Grimm explains. “Nicole’s vision helped our company to transform into this new environment with great success.”
Motivated by her love of plants and the customer experience, her infectious positivity hasn’t gone unnoticed. In recent years, she began to represent the company and the Ontario industry on international platforms such as tradeshows and organized visits in Europe with the Luxflora Group.
Enjoying the camaraderie she has with other growers, breeders and container suppliers, “We all win when customers are put first,” Radke says.
Orangeline Farms Ltd.
Saman Soltaninejad is a grower at Orangeline Farms, and getting there wasn’t a short journey.
“My grandfather was a farmer and I remember how hard he was working on his 5-acre farm,” he says. Unfortunately, he lost the farm due to a savior pest invasion, but that loss triggered me to study [the] field of agriculture to help people and save the products.”
Following his bachelor’s degree in crop protection at the University of Tehran, he pursued a master’s in plant pathology and biological control. He went on to hold a number of key commercial agricultural positions in Iran, then moving to Belgium to conduct and publish research on biological controls of pests and diseases with different research centres.
Seeking to bring his knowledge to the field, Soltaninejad made his way to Leamington. He was hired on as a bioscout by Orangeline Farms, promoted to IPM coordinator and now grower.
“Saman is an excellent student, and perhaps more importantly [a] teacher,” say Duffy Kniaziew, president of Orangeline Farms. “[He] is an excellent leader in all endeavours he encounters from the challenge of attacking pest and disease head on, to managing a chemical-free greenhouse with a multi-layered biological system, as well as managing a diverse workforce”.
“When I look back to my journey, my passion and interest have led me into this level,” he says. “Producing fresh and healthy products and helping people to get more valuable ingredients motivates me to get up early every morning and drive 50 KM to get to work.”
Soltaninejad also credits his success to the people at Orangeline and the people in this sector. Their positivity and support helped get him to his role today, he says.
Orangeline Farms Ltd.
Steve Stasko is a grower at Orangeline Farms. A third generation farmer, Stasko grew up on his family’s farm processing tomatoes, cash crops and more recently potatoes.
Graduating with an honours bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Guelph in 2011, Stasko knew he wanted to return to Leamington and take part in his family’s farm – though not on a full-time basis.
“One of my favourite courses in university was Greenhouse Production which had a greenhouse project component to it where myself and a partner were actually able to grow a small crop of cucumbers over the course of the semester, testing different nutritional variations,” he says. Harvest was rewarding for him and his friends, but the hands-on experience of growing in a controlled environment, including pruning and applying beneficial insects, all peaked his interest in greenhouse production.
After working as a quality assurance manager in a packing facility, he witnessed the importance of quality produce to the production chain, prompting his decision to go back to growing.
“We were excited to welcome Steve to our team in May of 2012 as assistant grower,” says Duffy Kniaziew, president of Orangeline Farms. Now as a grower, Stasko is in his fourth year of growing strawberries under LEDs and has recently applied this technology to greenhouse peppers.
“One of the biggest components of my job that continues to motivate me is Orangeline’s mantra of being different from anyone else in the industry and a strong focus on research and development,” he says.
He’s involved in an array of projects at Orangeline, including tests of 40 to 60 pre-commercial varieties for different seed companies each year. He and Orangeline have also worked with a local elementary school greenhouse, supplying them with plants and educating them on the greenhouse growing process.
“It’s a pleasure to see their excitement when learning about greenhouse agriculture,” he says, “and if it motivates them to pursue education and careers in agriculture then I’ll consider it a win.”
Tim Verbeek is vice-president and grower at Platinum Produce. Always looking to streamline greenhouse operations, he constantly finds new ways to improve every inch of it – from irrigation all the way to employee motivation.
“What motivates me is something that my parents instilled in me when I was young, and that is to try to do/be the best that I possibly can at any task I set out to do, or in whatever situation that is presented before me,” he says. “I enjoy growing because it is a very challenging job that always keeps me on my toes and is very rarely the same experience from day to day.”
Verbeek’s family was involved in farming for years, and starting greenhouse operations in 2003. Verbeek himself joined in 2009 when he retired from playing professional hockey in the United States – and he’s been here ever since.
Active in the local community and a committed sponsor to local sports teams, he’s also involved in local, provincial and federal politics in promoting the interests of the greenhouse industry.
When it comes to the industry-wide issue of the pepper weevil, Verbeek’s colleagues agree – he’s been at the forefront of combatting this greenhouse pest. He has campaigned MP’s and MPP’s, as well as the CFIA and CBSA, about possible means of preventing the potential introduction of the weevil from the United States and Mexico. Working with other members of the greenhouse industry, he’s researched and implemented ways to combat the weevil while making these solutions as efficient as possible.
“There are highs and there are lows,” he says about his work, “but in the end, I find it very rewarding because I am working with my hands and I get to be creative with coming up with new solutions to problems that present themselves. Growing is both physically and mentally rewarding, and I love that!”
All images courtesy of nominators, nominees or their respective operations.
Correction: Note that Stephanie Bach was first brought on as the lead plant scientist, and not a horticultural technician as previously stated in the July 2018 print issue. We apologize for the error.