Monday, August 23, 2021

Hunger for tomatoes turns Canada into greenhouse superpower

While we are on greenhouses, it is booming industry in Ontario in particular.  This is a good article on the tomato industry.  Now you know why the supermarkets never run out of tomatos..

No one has yet discovered how to get a vine ripened field tomato to the customer and retain its fresh picked flavor.  Worse, we have not discovered how to do it with a greenhouse either.

The flavor literally evaporates away.  however shipped field tomatos still are better in taste.

I know of no better garden treat than a sun ripened tomato picked from the vine and with either a touch of sugar or salt on the cut face.

Hunger for tomatoes turns Canada into greenhouse superpower

It's a burgeoning empire under glass. Canadian farmers now earn more from greenhouse vegetables than from eggs or potatoes. But storm clouds are casting a shadow. Story by Peter Kuitenbrouwer with photos and video by Laura Pedersen

Author of the article:Peter Kuitenbrouwer

Publishing date:Jun 28, 2017 • June 30, 2017 • 7 minute read


Article content

Kingsville, Ont. — The test greenhouse of Mastronardi Produce Ltd., part of the family’s 25-hectare crystal palace in this lush farm belt near Windsor, counts 500 varieties of tomato. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of tomato species.

The other day, Paul Mastronardi led a walk through the grape tomato section of the sprawling, spotless greenhouse, where a jungle of vines reaches to the airport-scale ceiling. He picked a mini-Kumato, a brown cherry tomato that he then polished on his spotless white T-shirt and popped into his mouth.

Can a good nap make up for a bad night’s sleep?

“I’m all about flavour,” he said, adding, “I bet I eat 20,000 tomatoes a year.”

Mastronardi is the biggest player in Canada’s booming greenhouse vegetable industry, but the family has plenty of company. The Leamington area along the north shore of Lake Erie houses the greatest concentration of vegetable greenhouses in North America — an empire under glass.

Shoppers routinely buy produce from California, Florida and Mexico, especially in winter. Yet veggies increasingly flow the other way, too. Ideal conditions — a temperate climate, innovative growers and proximity to the biggest markets in North America — have caused this industry to explode.

The value of Canada’s greenhouse produce crop more than doubled, to $1.3 billion last year from $600 million in 2001, and now eclipses eggs, potatoes or Durum wheat.

From Ontario alone, every day about 200 refrigerated transport trucks loaded with greenhouse tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers cross the border, headed to New York, Boston and as far away as Florida.

But it’s an industry that has dark clouds looming over it.

The greenhouses, heated with natural gas, already struggle with increased fuel prices under Ontario’s cap-and-trade carbon program. Electricity rate hikes have also taken a toll. Now, the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers says Ontario’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 will increase its labour costs by 35 per cent. There is talk of greenhouses closing, or relocating.

“We are pretty upset about what has been announced,” said George Gilvesy, chairman of the vegetable growers. “You cannot plan with these type of changes.”

On the plus side, Canadians consume more ketchup per capita than anywhere else. And what does ketchup need most? A whole bunch of tomatoes.Paul Mastronardi is CEO and president of greenhouse giant Mastronardi Produce Ltd. headquartered in Kingsville, Ont. Mastronardi calls himself “a modern farmer.”

Armando Mastronardi, Paul’s great-grandfather, emigrated in the 1940s from Italy; as a grower, he sensibly picked the country’s southernmost spot. His son Umberto went to the Netherlands and brought Dutch greenhouse technology to Canada. “In the early eighties we got out of the dirt,” Mastronardi said.

Mastronardi Produce, owned by Paul and his sister, Marne Safrance, also owns greenhouses in Colorado and Maine, recently opened a 100-acre greenhouse in Coldwater, Mich., and owns distribution businesses in California, Florida and Texas.

Two-thirds of its 2,000 employees are stateside. Mastronardi said he travels about 150 days of the year. The day after he met the Financial Post, he flew to a marketing conference in San Antonio, Tex.

Mastronardi is 43, but looks about 25. Perhaps his smooth skin comes from his tomato-heavy diet. On a table in the test greenhouse sit glass bowls with dozens of cherry tomatoes in a spectrum of hues, with names such as Rorange Crunch, Flavor Bombs and Purple Strawberry.

“I was a DJ growing up,” he said. “I went to Western (University) for physics and ended up sommelier-ing tomatoes.”

Mastronardi offers a yellow cherry tomato. It tastes lemony. The farm plans to launch this tomato, not yet named, at a produce marketing convention in October.

“We were using typical North American varieties,” he said. “When I came in, I made it more of a research program. Flavour is repeat sales.”

Yellow cherry tomatoes at the Sunset greenhouses of Mastronardi Produce.

He pops a trial cherry tomato into his mouth. “The flavour is good. I look at the flavour experience of crunching it, and whether the skin dissolves in your mouth. No one likes skin stuck between their teeth like a popcorn kernel.”

A bumblebee lands on a reporter’s notepad. The bees, among the greenhouses’ hardest workers, buzz around all day pollinating the flowers.

Is Mastronardi a farmer? He grows vegetables, but does not get his hands dirty. Nobody does.

To enter the Mastronardi test greenhouse you walk over red brushes that scrub your shoe soles, and then put on plastic booties. Fittingly, you also wear a lab coat.

The tomato vines grow out of what look like oversized bricks, but are blocks of rockwool, similar to fiberglass insulation, on shelves at waist height.

A white tube runs to each vine that “fertigates” — the word is a hybrid of fertilize and irrigate — the plant with a concoction comprising of water, potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate, iron and other nutrients. Workers use plastic clips to attach the vines to strings hanging from the roof.

“I am a modern farmer,” Mastronardi said.

Many of the innovations here come from the Netherlands: For example, hot water runs through twin pipes on the ground to heat the greenhouses and the pipes double as train tracks for picking/pruning carts. Rather than spray pesticides, staff here release predatory mites to eat thrips and aphids.

Edwin Pascal picks ripe cherry tomatoes at the 55-acre Mastronardi Sunset greenhouse in Kingsville, Ont. The tomatoes are grown in such a way to allow workers to always pick the fruit at waist height.

Workers, many of the temporary foreign kind, tap a card on a reader and type a code for each job they perform: tying up vines, picking fruit, tearing off excess leaves. Managers traverse the vast greenhouses by bicycle.

Dutch-Canadians have made similar innovations in B.C., where Cornelius Houwelings began farming in 1956 in Langley. Today, the Houwelings family owns 50 acres of greenhouses in B.C., 28 acres in Idaho and 125 acres in California.

“When Casey Houwelings first brought the business to California, people were really wondering what this guy from Canada was doing, building these structures in the fields,” said David Bell, chief marketing officer for Houwelings in Delta, B.C.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense to them. But greenhouses make a lot of sense. Our 125 acres would produce as much in kilos as 3,000 acres of field vegetables.”

Despite the yield gains, not everyone loves this growing technique.

Nathan Augustine, a graduate of Niagara College, waits tables at Vernon’s Tap & Grill in Kingsville; he does not want to work in a greenhouse. It’s not the kind of farming he prefers.

“It’s all science, it’s like a lab,” he said. “You have to clean up before you go in. It uses up some of Canada’s richest farmland, and they don’t even use the soil. They cover it in plastic.” He adds that while he respects greenhouses, because they maximize yield and create jobs, “Nothing beats biting into a vine-ripened field tomato.”

TThrough history farmers have turned over soil to grow crops and some still believe that food whose roots grow in insulation and are fertigated from a tube just aren’t as good. But opinions and techniques are changing.

Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is a cluster of brick buildings surrounded by huge heritage trees in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Moses Rittenhouse, a local boy, made his fortune in the lumber business in Chicago in the 19th century, and later donated about 80 hectares to found what was then known as the Ontario Horticultural Experimental Station.

The centre has test-grown lots of stuff in its verdant soil, experimenting with pears, apples, grapes and, more recently, sweet potatoes. But Vineland has also spent $10 million to build a one-acre test greenhouse, which opened last year.

“Growing local food in the soil is a limited opportunity for food sovereignty in Canada,” said Jim Brandle, Vineland’s chief executive. “Greenhouse food is safer. Plus, during the winter, you are not bringing things 2,000 miles to Canada’s dinner tables.”

But many say greenhouse tomatoes cannot trump field-ripened fruit in one key area: flavour. Vineland wants to change that.

One of the criticisms of greenhouse-grown tomatoes is that they can come up short in the taste department compared with vegetables from the field.

Most greenhouses in Canada grow tomatoes from Dutch hybrid seeds. Five years ago, Vineland began Ontario’s first greenhouse tomato breeding program. The 10-year goal: to produce a Canadian TOV — or tomato on the vine — that has high yield and good flavour.

“There are some tomatoes out there that are absolutely delicious,” said David Liscombe, a Vineland biochemist. “You harvest them from your garden. Old heirloom varieties. But the yields are very low. They crack, they ripen too fast, they get mouldy and aren’t disease resistant.”

Valerio Primomo, a vegetable breeder, five years ago began cross-pollinating commercial and heirloom tomato plants: one with high yield, the other with good flavour. This year, he planted 75 hybrids in the greenhouse.

Wearing protective white overalls, Primomo walks through the greenhouse, past countless clusters of ripe red tomatoes that any gardener would be proud to call her own. But he views his babies with a critical eye. On one cluster, some tomatoes are red and others still yellow. Some tomato stems are too long so that the cluster is not compact. Some have inconsistent fruit size.

“This is the exciting part here,” said Primomo, 47, “because this is the final test of our hybrids. Everyone is pumped up right now about these varieties. Everything looks great. Remember, we only need one winner out of these.”

Valerio Primomo is a research scientist at the research greenhouse at the Vineland Research & Innovation Centre in Vineland Station, in the Niagara Peninsula. Primomo aims, by 2020, to create a tomato on the vine variety that tastes better and is better suited to the Canadian climate.

Meghan Beattie, a research technician wearing a singlet to survive the greenhouse heat, walks the row, pushing a cart. She has a pair of pruners, scale, clipboard and pink iPad. She clips clusters of tomatoes, weighs them and inputs the data.

This year, Vineland will harvest seeds from the top five varieties and get them to greenhouses for test plantings next season.

“If they see even a one-per-cent increase in yield, it’s enough for them to get excited about,” Primomo said.

Does he have a name for his new super-tomato? “Not ’til we have something. Give it three or four more years.”

Excitement about the new variety aside, Gilvesy remains concerned about the future of Canada’s greenhouse vegetable industry as prices for labour and electricity keep rising at home.

“Our growth rate has been phenomenal,” he said. “We have neighbouring jurisdictions, Michigan and Ohio, who are trying to court our members. It’s not a matter of are we going to build new greenhouses? It’s a matter of where.”

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