Top 4 Under 40: Class of 2020
This year’s young greenhouse stars have taken their family farms to new heights.
By Greta Chiu
Growers shoulder a lot of responsibility and more so than what their titles may suggest – a fact that is made evident by Greenhouse Canada’s Top 4 Under 40 winners this year. Knowing horticulture like the back of their hand, each award winner may have inherited the family farm, but they’ve expanded, upgraded and revamped it, taking the operation to a whole new level. Meet this year’s winners from coast to coast.
Michael van den Hoek
Lowland Gardens – Great Village, NS
Growing up on the family nursery in Great Village, Nova Scotia, Michael van den Hoek’s passion for the greenhouse industry came at a very young age.
“Many of my earliest memories are from being with my parents in the greenhouse – watering, deadheading marigolds for wholesale orders, mixing soil and putting together tray inserts before school,” recalls van den Hoek, who is now co-owner of Lowland Gardens.
Initially leaving to pursue a neuroscience program at Dalhousie University, he later became a designated accountant when plans for a career in research didn’t pan out. “I worked and lived in Halifax for the better part of a decade, but still came back almost every year to help out on weekends or whenever possible in the family business during the busy season.” But after his first child was born, van den Hoek decided to choose a more family-oriented life and returned to his horticultural roots full-time in 2016.
“My wife and I always joke about how my mid-life crisis came incredibly early. Not wanting to become the cliché corporate absentee father, we packed up and moved back to the village where I was born and started working with the family business in earnest.”
Started by van den Hoek’s parents Tony and Gerrie in 1985, Lowland Gardens is recognized for their quality products, friendly service and engaging atmosphere. “Michael complements Lowland’s success by always being on the lookout for new types of plants and different varieties for his customers,” says Krista Vroegh, who serves on the board of Greenhouse Nova Scotia (GNS) alongside van den Hoek. “According to his customers, he comes up with some of the best displays: fun, colourful and innovative!”
Serving as a board member and vice-president of GNS, van den Hoek has spent countless hours advocating for and promoting the industry ever since, says Vroegh. While looking up COVID-19 regulations this year, he made sure that other growers in Nova Scotia were aware of the criteria for greenhouses and garden centres. As for their own business, van den Hoek initiated Lowland’s new online store, promoted curbside pick-up, and created new ways for social distancing within their operations.
When asked about what motivates him to succeed, van den Hoek says it’s about making a difference in people’s lives. “There is just something incredibly gratifying about watching something sprout or grow, knowing it was planted either by your own hands or with your guidance. There is a pride that comes from watching the excited looks on customers’ faces when they leave your store with a massive, well-branched hanging basket that is as beautiful as it can be, because you managed to time your pinching of the crop just right.”
Westwood Greenhouses – New Hamburg, ON
“One of the first memories I have from being a child is working in our family greenhouse,” says Rachel Gondosch, head grower of Westwood Greenhouses in New Hamburg, Ont. “While most kids would go home after school and play, my siblings and I would go straight to the greenhouse… Although it wasn’t always fun in the moment, I look back and am thankful for the work ethic that it created in me.”
Supporting her family’s businesses, Gondosch started as an assistant grower at Westwood before taking on the position of head grower at her family’s second operation, Colour Paradise Greenhouses in Mannheim, Ont. Returning to Westwood in 2016, Gondosch stepped into the shoes left by her father, John Numan, who passed away from cancer three years ago. “I owe most of what I know to [him],” she says. “He taught me how to analyze a plant to know what it needs, and I am honoured to follow in his footsteps and run his greenhouse operation.”
Two years ago, Gondosch converted a third of their greenhouse space for organic vegetable and herb transplants to great success. She now manages 2.5 acres of spring bedding plants and vegetable transplants in 29 hoop houses.
As head grower, Gondosch trains and oversees a team of assistant growers from seeding to shipping, but she’s also hands-on. Irrigation and fertilization, scheduling crops and biologicals, and scouting for pests, for instance – she’s actively involved in all aspects of crop production, yet still manages their finances and handles all cross-border and organic certifications. At Colour Paradise and Westwood, she helped install and set up heating/cooling schedules as well as automated watering systems through Argus controls.
Greenhouse consultant Melhem Sawaya describes Gondosch as being one of the most thorough and detail-oriented people he knows and in everything she does. “She does not accept anything other than perfection,” he says. “As a grower, every task is taken very seriously and completed on time, which makes up 70 per cent of a successful grower.”
But in addition to excelling at her duties, Gondosch’s passion for growing is unmistakable. “Most people are excited to get out and plant in their gardens every spring, and I am lucky enough to have this as my career! Everyday I walk into the greenhouses and am surrounded by the warmth and beauty of the plants around me,” she says. “Watching a seed turn into a vibrant plant, ready to bring joy to someone else, is extremely rewarding.”
Sunshine Greenhouses Ltd. – Redcliff, AB
Keith Vis was first introduced to the greenhouse industry at the age of four. Originally from Thunder Bay, Ont., Vis and his siblings moved out to Redcliff, Alta. where their parents had bought a greenhouse.
“With the greenhouse being only a half acre in size, my parents did all the work themselves,” recalls Vis, who would pitch in after school and during summer breaks. No matter how much he may have inwardly groaned about the work, by the time he was 15, he knew his dream was to own and operate a greenhouse.
At his father’s insistence, Vis apprenticed with an electrical contractor at 16 and started his own electrical company by the age of 24. “It gave me the opportunity to spend more time in the greenhouse working alongside my Dad and learning every aspect of the greenhouse,” he says.
It wasn’t long before Vis completed his first greenhouse expansion in 2012. “It was only 1.5 acres, but we did everything ourselves,” he recalls fondly. It was the perfect opportunity to learn the ins and outs of growing a tomato crop, and a five-acre expansion soon followed.
In 2016, Vis broke ground on a new five-acre greenhouse at a second site. Growing tomatoes under winter lighting, Sunshine Greenhouses became one of the first producers in Alberta to implement this technology on a large commercial scale.
“That was the biggest learning curve I had as a greenhouse owner, grower, project coordinator and husband,” says Vis, who also juggled his duties as a new father that year. Two years later, Vis added five more acres of lit production and is looking forward to an additional six acres in 2020.
“Status quo doesn’t exist for Keith. There’s always room for improvement,” says his brother and colleague Dirk. Intent on excellence, Dirk says Vis will often discuss options directly with a manufacturer’s engineering staff or simply construct his own systems. In fact, Vis’ desire to maximize light transmission into a greenhouse has been described as “borderline obsessive.”
Dedicated to strengthening the greenhouse sector, Vis volunteers on a number of industry committees and doesn’t hesitate to share his knowledge with other producers. Aside from planning and executing greenhouse builds, Vis’ hands-on personality often finds him performing a range of tasks. From monitoring crops and mixing fertilizer, to mentoring staff and searching for more sustainable packaging options, there’s not one title that could encompass everything Vis does.
“There is never a boring day in the greenhouse,” Vis says. Evolving with a dynamic industry, Vis and his family have acquired the skills and implemented the technological innovations to excel. “I strive my best to build a company that is sustainable in the future, and that one day my kids will be able to take over.”
Corne and Paul Moerman
Sunnyside Produce Ltd. – Surrey, BC
Growing up with a greenhouse as their backyard, cousins Corne and Paul Moerman saw first-hand what it took for their fathers to succeed.
Emigrating from the Netherlands in 1996, cousins Jos and Bram Moerman set up the first five acres in Abbotsford, BC before expanding to South Surrey and Delta. Today, their business has become one of the province’s largest greenhouse pepper operations, totalling 70 acres and producing over 10 million kilograms of peppers each year.
With formal training in hand from Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), Corne and Paul joined the family business full-time in 2008. Their first project was to manage a newly built grading and packing line, which was set up as an independent business unit. From driving the forklift to handling all of the paperwork and payroll, the pair took advantage of this opportunity and learned how to run a successful business, says Gary Jones, a faculty member and the cousins’ former instructor at KPU. In 2016, the various divisions – Sunnyside Greenhouses, Sunny Bay Greenhouses and Sunnyside Grading – were brought under one name. Corne, Paul, Jos and Bram now share ownership of Sunnyside Produce Ltd.
“The past three years have been a transitional time with our parents slowly retiring and handing over more responsibilities,” says Paul. In 2018, the cousins took charge of a new 15-acre build. Tasked with designing the greenhouse, they were also responsible for a number of critical areas including city permits, foreign labour housing applications, building spaces and more. Undaunted, the enterprising pair have another 15-acre build planned for 2020 while juggling the business’ day-to-day operations. Corne manages human resources, foreign labour and accounting, while Paul focuses on their packing house operation and transitioning their machinery towards specialty peppers. “We enjoy the variety that working in the greenhouse industry brings,” says Paul. “Every day brings a new challenge, and no year is the same as the one before.”
Keen on sharing their passion for the greenhouse sector, the cousins regularly open their doors to educational visits from universities and researchers, as well as school-aged students as part of Greenhouse Veggie Days organized by the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association and BC Agriculture in the Classroom. “That is an enormous amount of preparation and clean up work, which they undertake enthusiastically – typical of their desire to bring new people into the industry they love,” says Jones. “With these two business-minded under-40’s at the helm, who knows what the 70 acres and 10 million kg’s may turn into over the next five years?”
Thank you to Paul Boers and Prins Greenhouses for their continued support of the Top 4 Under 40 awards program.