Doing one thing well keeps this greenhouse sprouting

A strong start is crucial to any healthy plant — whether it’s a canola stem or a cucumber seedling. And focusing on that one crucial step in the production process is proving to be a vigorous growth strategy for Ontario’s 2016 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award winners. In fact, since starting their four-acre propagation greenhouse, Roelands Plant Farms Inc., a mere three years ago, Adrian and Jodi Roelands have already expanded to 12 acres. Now that’s good stand establishment!

Southwestern Ontario is a hotbed for Canada’s greenhouse growers, so when this young couple decided to venture out on their own, they chose an ag business where they both had some experience, and where they saw big opportunities for growth. Early farm life for Jodi and Adrian, both university graduates, included livestock. Jodi’s parents had a poultry farm before adding on a pepper greenhouse. Adrian grew up on a hog farm, and also worked at a greenhouse before he and Jodi were married.

They built their greenhouse near Lambton Shores, ON — a little off the beaten path for a propagation enterprise, but that was the idea. “We wanted a location that was fairly isolated from other greenhouses… so there’s no crop contamination with pests or diseases,” explains Adrian.

“We were also looking for good sunlight levels in the winter, and we wanted to have as cool a summer as possible,” he adds. Building close to Lake Huron means cooler summers because of the north and west winds that come off the lake.

In addition to a great location, the Roelands saw a need for more propagation space in the greenhouse sector. In propagation, vegetable seeds are planted and grown to about a foot in height, then sold to greenhouse growers — a process that allows them to pick three to six weeks sooner than when starting from scratch.

Regardless of the industry you are in, starting new means you have the opportunity to do things right, right from the start, says Adrian. He travelled to B.C., Europe and Scandinavia to look at different greenhouse operations. These trips helped him develop networks where new innovations were being sprouted.

“We didn’t want to build something outdated so we went right to the top and made sure everything was state-of-the-art. We know that our sales are all driven by plant quality, so we built the facility to make the highest quality plants.”

The Roelands greenhouse incorporates technology like ebb-and-flood floor irrigation that improves efficiency and lowers labour costs; grow lights and energy shade curtains for a more cost-effective growing environment; and integrated biological controls to help control pests and diseases.

Another key decision was to limit production to vegetables only as part of an overall emphasis on quality (many operators propagate flowers to fill in the off-season). Indeed, their marketing slogan is: “where vegetables are royalty.”

The Roelands also had to think big while starting small. For example, a large, one-acre warehouse was part of the first construction phase and, as Jodi explains, they built with their capacity goals in mind. “Four acres of growing space was all we could afford then, so we were paying for 12 acres-worth of warehouse off of only four acres of income,” she says.

“We needed to get up to the 12 acres as quickly as possible to make the entire business more efficient and viable.” And fortunately, that happened more quickly than expected.

Adrian attributes that rapid growth to quality control, which includes extra water sterilization treatments to ensure strong root development. And, he says, their management team is another key factor.

“We’ve got a lot of really great people here. While we’re new to the propagation industry, we’ve got two people who each have over 20 years of experience, and a lot of newer people who have picked up on it incredibly fast,” he says. All management and staff are on board with the company motto “premium plant propagation” and this has had a huge impact on quality control, adds Adrian.

The Roelands also keep a close eye on expenses, managing costs like natural gas and looking to automate where possible to offset labour costs. And because they serve clients in Canada and the U.S., they purchased their own trucks to minimize transportation costs.

Inclusive customer service is also key to the Roelands’ success. “During the growing process, we try and stay in really close contact with our customers,” says Jodi. “Twice a week, we send them an update on how their plants are growing, and if there’s a problem that arises, we call them right away to discuss how best they’d like us to deal with it. We try and include them in every step.”

As the Roelands finished the final phase of production last fall, their greenhouse was already fully booked for a busy winter growing season of peppers, cucumbers and grafted tomatoes. The challenge was filling the space for the rest of the year, which led them to develop a new product called “living lettuce.” They use their propagation medium for a lettuce head that consumers can take home, water and have fresh lettuce right in their kitchens.

In general, people think the greenhouse industry is similar to growing crops, says Adrian. “I would say that a greenhouse is actually, in a lot of ways, more similar to livestock than to crops. You have more control over all of your systems and your elements,” he explains.

A greenhouse requires constant attention. “If the power goes off, then your irrigation goes off, or your boiler shuts down. It’s not like crops, which don’t require quite as much babysitting. With livestock or with a greenhouse operation, it’s really 24/7.”

Thanks to technology, that attention can be given remotely. An app on Adrian’s phone allows him to monitor the greenhouses, operate irrigation and troubleshoot, even when he’s away from the premises.

But plants aren’t the only things growing at the Roelands’ farm. Jodi and Adrian have five children, (from under two to eight years old) who are shooting up too! Raising them takes a lot of teamwork, as the couple alternates time with the business and the kids.

“They all take turns out with Adrian,” says Jodi. “Whoever wakes up earliest in the morning gets sent to the greenhouse with Adrian when he’s doing his chores. They are pretty passionate about that, and have already decided they want to be greenhouse farmers.” FF