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As a gentle snow falls upon the barren farm fields of South Delta, inside the greenhouses of Houweling’s Tomatoes on 64th Street, the weather is warm and humid.
LED lights cast a yellow glow over the endless rows of green-leafed tomato plants, each bearing handfuls of plump red fruits. The intense colours and sweet aromas stand in sharp contrast to the bleakness on the other side of the glass.
It is January here in Delta, but thanks to recent advancements in agricultural technology, top-quality produce is being grown without pesticides in the middle of winter in a glass-encased oasis.
“This is the future of farming,” says John Skeet, manager of Houweling’s Tomatoes.
An automated door slides open to reveal the perfectly pruned rows of plants. In between each row runs a pair of round heating pipes, which double as rails for the small motorized scissor-lifts the workers ride up and down the rows.
The tomato plants grow not in soil, but fibreglass-like product called rockwool and crushed coconut shells, and are individually fed water and fertilizer through a computerized hydroponic system.
The system measures variables such as sunlight and fertilizer content in wastewater, and then calculates the ideal fertilizer composition to feed the plants.
“It takes a lot of technology to produce a tomato that tastes like the ones that came from your grandpa’s garden,” says David Bell, Houweling’s marketing director. “As you can see, this is not your grandpa’s garden.”
Owner Casey Houweling helped to first introduce greenhouse growing to B.C. after visiting Holland in the 1970s, where his family originates. There he saw how Dutch farmers used technology and science to vastly improve their yield when faced with with the challenge of feeding a growing population using a shrinking land base.
Houweling started growing hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes in 1985 with a 2.5-hectare facility here in Delta, and has expanded to more than 20 hectares today.
“We’re always looking to improve, and that willingness to innovate is what we’re all about,” says Houweling, on the phone from the company’s California facility where he spends half his week. “If you love what you do, you want to do it the best you can.”
Sometimes the most seemingly insignificant advancements can have the biggest effect.
“This right here revolutionized tomato farming,” says Skeet as he holds an inconspicuous silicone clip, half the size of a penny, between his fingertips. Developed in Japan, the tiny clip allows for the easy grafting of tomato plant vines, which lets farmers grow plants with higher yields and hardier roots.
“This little clip has probably doubled tomato production worldwide,” Skeet says.
He estimates Houweling Tomatoes’ Delta farm produces anywhere from 25 to 65 kg of tomatoes per square metre annually, depending on the variety.
“That’s 25 times what a field can produce,” says Skeet.
The produce is also vastly superior.
Field-grown tomatoes shipped by truck across the continent from places like Mexico and Florida are picked green, covered in pesticide residue, and sprayed with ethylene gas so they can ripen.
“They’re hard as apples when they pick them,” says Skeet as he plucks a bright red cherry tomato of the vine and pops it in his mouth. “There’s no comparison.”
If you enjoy fresh local produce in the cold winter months, there’s a good chance the vegetables in your fridge were grown at Windset Farms’ greenhouses on 41B Street in Delta.
In addition to tomatoes, the 30-hectare greenhouse complex produces a half dozen varieties of peppers, as well as eggplant, cucumber, and lettuce, supplying much of Western Canada and beyond.
However, the facility has the look and feel of a top-secret research laboratory rather than a farm. There’s a security gate to navigate just to enter the premises, and workers are required to wear blue body suits and face masks, and must rinse their feet in sanitizer upon entering the greenhouses to prevent cross-contamination.
“We take food security very seriously here,” says Chief Operating Officer John Newell. For greenhouse growers like Windset and Houweling, prevention is the key. By keeping pests out, they can all but eliminate the need for pesticides.
“We don’t advertise that we’re 100 per cent pesticide free, because we still need to be able to use pesticides if we are at risk of losing our crop,” says Newell. “As it is, our produce has less than one per cent of the pesticide residue of field-grown crops.”
Windset employs a variety of natural methods to eradicate pests instead.
To combat the white flies that are the bane of tomato farmers everywhere, Windset has introduced a parasitic wasp to their crops. The tiny wasp lays its eggs in the white fly larvae, preventing it from reproducing, while causing no damage to the plants.
The cool local climate also helps keeps pests at bay.
In many ways, Delta is an ideal location for greenhouse growing, says Newell.
“First of all, we’re near the ocean, so that keeps the greenhouses warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” he says, resulting in higher yields and lower energy costs.
Delta also gets 15 to 20 per cent more sunlight than the Fraser Valley.
Despite the many benefits to greenhouse farming, there are some who don’t want to see the large glass structures here in Delta.
Where there was once pastoral fields of rich fertile soil, there are now rigid industrial-looking structures, shattering the bucolic landscape.
But the reality of farming in Canada is that greenhouses are necessary, if we want to be able to feed ourselves, says Skeet.
“People move here… and they want to look out their kitchen window, and see acres and acres of farmers going bankrupt,” he says. “But farming has changed.”
Light pollution is also a concern for some nearby residents. At night, the powerful lighting systems used in the greenhouses cast an ominous orange glow in the night sky.
As a result, local greenhouses are also required to shut their lights from 6 p.m. to midnight, and many use tall cedar hedges and landscaping to shield neighbours from the lights.
The public as a whole is starting to warm up to greenhouse growing, because they see the need, says Newell.
“When we first opened, there was some opposition from a very vocal minority, but it’s really toned down,” he says. “The community is very supportive today, because they understand… there are things we have to do as a society to ensure domestic food production.
“If we want local food, it takes intensive, hi-tech agriculture to pull that off in Canada. That’s the new reality.”
In addition to producing higher yields, modern greenhouses also produce more jobs.
Houweling’s 20-hectare facility employs more than 200 at the height of the harvest. Windset Farms employs more than 350 at peak season, making it one of the bigger employers in Delta.
“Usually where there’s an increase in technology, there’s a decrease in labour, but in agriculture it’s the opposite.”
And unlike field farming, work in a lit greenhouse takes place year-round, which means year-round employment.
Houweling says he started to focus the company’s efforts on the environmental aspects of their operation more than 10 years ago. By recycling the water used in the hydroponic system, not only was the operation able to reduce water usage, but it was able to recover unused fertilizer as well.
The next step in environmentally-friendly greenhouse technology, Houweling says, will be cogeneration systems to provide heat, electricity, and much more.
Cogeneration units burn natural gas to create electricity to power the greenhouse lights, and heat to warm the greenhouses. The exhaust gas is then pumped through a catalytic converter, where it is turned into food-grade carbon dioxide - used as gaseous fertilizer in the greenhouses - and water.
“We get our power, our heat, our water, and our CO2 from this one unit,” says Houweling. “And the excess electricity we sell back into the grid.”
Houweling’s Tomatoes’ California facility became the first farm in the US to employ a cogeneration system, and he hopes to bring the technology north.
However, he estimates it will take him years to navigate the red tape involved.
“The first problem is that no one has done anything like this before,” Houweling says. “This will reduce our current [CO2] emissions by 25 per cent.”
By continuing to innovate, Houweling says he hopes to expand his facility’s year-round farming capabilities.
“We can keep the jobs and food production at home in our backyard, all year round,” he says. “It just makes sense.”