Early mistakes fuel impressive growth for this producer

Business has truly blossomed over the last few years at EZ Grow Farms. And that growth has led to some sweet success building an emerging concept in the horticulture world — greenhouse strawberry production. Today, the Langton, ON, family operation is one of the premier strawberry plant propagators in North America.

It’s amazing progress after some initial pain. Co-owner and general manager Dusty Zamecnik looks back now with extreme gratitude for those early, tough and humbling lessons. In fact, he was just coming through them in 2017 when he was selected as Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmer. Fresh in his mind were some steep financial losses from his initial premise that tender, young plants could be grown outside a greenhouse. A course correction proved to be the right move.

“I’m so happy those difficult times happened,” says Zamecnik. “In 2017, we just had our first greenhouse phase up, and there was a lot of learning to be had with developing this plant product for a new industry in North America. We had to train and discuss programs with greenhouse operators, all while we were still trying to learn ourselves.”

Back then, the challenge was managing orders for several hundred thousand plants. A mere four years later, EZ Grow has already doubled the size of its initial phase, a 1.5-acre greenhouse, with Zamecnik looking to double capacity again in phase three.

His international target market, Florida, has grown to include markets all along the eastern seaboard, Alabama and the Caribbean. Recently, he’s added commercial strawberry producers in Canada to his customer roster and is now supplying upwards of 16 million plants to all of these markets.

“The entire team here at EZ Grow went headfirst into it,” says Zamecnik. “Those were some crazy years. As weird as it sounds, growing millions of plants is almost easier than the first hundred thousand.”

EXTENDING THE SEASON THROUGH TECHNOLOGY

The idea of growing strawberries under glass to extend the fruit’s season has taken off as consumers embrace the “grown and produced in Canada” offer.

“Greenhouses offer that flexibility,” says Zamecnik. There is a lot of research and commercialization being done with threeseason production using hoop houses and varietals bred to get strawberries earlier, and then pushing them later beyond that four week window in June. “There’s money to be had, and there’s a demand.”

With the help of international consultants, trips to Europe and even some old-school farming techniques, EZ Grow’s team has made great strides, becoming leaders in developing programs that extend the growing season and expand markets.

EZ Grow serves two such markets with two different products. Rooted strawberry plugs are the farm’s main business. Reproduction of the asexual plants begins in February for distribution beginning in mid-August to greenhouses doing winter fruit production.

EZ Grow also ships trays of young strawberry plants. These are put into artificial freezers, to provide the chilling needed to initiate flower production, and then shipped out in early spring to growers who are using poly greenhouses or minitunnels for the early-season fruit market.

In both cases, investment in a made-in- Canada Cravo automatic retractable roof greenhouse allows EZ Grow to condition the plants by providing both indoor and outdoor growing conditions, which produces a hardier plant.

Zamecnik is also pioneering other innovations. “The greenhouse is now to a size that we can justify the highest of technology in environmental sustainability.”

For example, fertilizer leached from the growing process will soon be collected, disinfected, computer-analyzed and topped up as needed, then recycled back through the system. Also, by the end of this year, water for the greenhouses will no longer come from wells as it will be replaced by roof-harvested rainwater stored in a six million litre retention pond.

MANAGING THROUGH A CRISIS

While EZ Grow’s business has continued on an impressive upward trajectory, it hasn’t been immune to the side effects of the pandemic. In fact, Zamecnik was in Europe in January 2020 visiting strawberry breeding companies when some of the first COVID cases were being identified.

“The ability to go and see and test out plants has been drastically affected by COVID,” he says. “Every year, we would be in Florida four or five times a winter, checking what’s happening at the university; checking what’s happening in California; seeing what’s over in Europe for new testing. Now we’re pretty much relying on PDFs.”

While it’s been manageable, Zamecnik couldn’t imagine doing business this way if he hadn’t already developed and built those relationships during his early days. Similarly, EZ Grow’s reputation for high plant quality has supported its own business with customers during trying times.

The biggest COVID pinch point has been accessing seasonal offshore labour. Delays, changing regulations and increased quarantine-related costs have all been stressors. Zamecnik says workers from places like Trinidad and Jamaica provide a high level of management and technical expertise, adding that the farm’s ability to provide year round work has started to attract more local labour interest as well.

PEOPLE AND PASSION POWER THE BUSINESS

Zamecnik is proud to be the fourth generation carrying on his family’s farming venture, which still holds claim to being Ontario’s largest commercial blueberry producer.

He’s grateful for his parents’ encouragement and their ongoing roles in the operation, allowing him to focus his full-time (and then some!) efforts on the strawberry propagation side of the business.

He only switches gears during some “all hands on deck” times of the year, but is also learning not to spread himself too thin. That’s meant stepping away from active participation in the Hometown Brew Co. microbrewery he co-founded and that is still helping diversify both the economy and the cool factor for the local Norfolk County region of southern Ontario.

He’s also grateful for the added input of his partner Abby Northgraves, who is going through her first full growing season with him.

“Going through the last crazy year has been so rewarding on a business level, and also on an interpersonal level, and as a team,” says Zamecnik, referring to the whole EZ Grow family.

“The level of business confidence we have now could only be created by screwing up as much as we did. We had customers who believed it would work, and a team that ‘figured it out’ one step at a time,” Zamecnik acknowledges, as he talks about the above-and-beyond commitment he sees, and perhaps inspires, in the people around him.

Zamecnik, who was also named one of the Top 4 Under 40 by Greenhouse Canada in 2019, credits his ongoing involvement with industry associations for helping him keep future focused in his business. The same applies to his role as chair of the Norfolk County Agriculture Advisory Board, and even keeping in touch with Outstanding Young Farmers alumni.

“It’s awesome to talk with people about what is coming up, and with people who are actually doing it in agriculture, not just growing the same thing, the same way,” he says. “OYF personifies the fact that ‘it’s happening’. It excites me that other people are also excited and are crazy as well. That’s what’s neat.”