By Melanie Epp, Special to The News
From the outside, Beverly Greenhouses appears to be a modest operation.
But with over 20 acres of greenhouses onsite, it is one of Ontario’s larger greenhouse cucumber operations. Third generation farmers and brothers Dale and Jan VanderHouts’ business is unique for a couple of reasons. First of all, they use tenable practices, like biological pest control and heat production using chips made from wasted wood. Secondly, they use what macro-economists call a vertical integration strategy, which means they strive to control all levels of the supply chain, from growing to packing.
Growing cucumbers indoors has its challenges. Pests, for instance, are still a problem, and heating throughout the year can be costly. The VanderHouts have found viable solutions for both problems, though.
Keeping the greenhouses warm, especially during the long, cold days of winter, takes a lot of hard work. The VanderHouts’ operation has several giant boilers; some run on gas and others that use wood chips made from waste wood from construction and demolition sites. The boilers heat water, which produces heat that is piped into the greenhouses. Exhaust from the gas boilers is blown into the greenhouse. Doing so increases carbon dioxide levels, which helps the plants to grow. Boilers work year round, but less so in the summer.
It’s important to keep the heating pipes warm, not only for heat, but to drive humidity out, said Jan.
“To fight pests, our first line of defence is to introduce beneficial insects,” said Jan, who points to yellow sticky cards that hang from individual plants.
Workers, he said scout the greenhouses weekly and carefully count the number of insects stuck to each card. When infestations reach threshold levels, beneficial insect introductions are increased.
The tiny pirate bug, Orius, for instance, is not only attracted to cucumber flowers, but it also feeds on destructive thrips at all stages. Parasitic wasps are used to control whitefly, an insect pest that sucks sap from cucumber plants and negatively impacts plant vigour. Bug lights have been installed at strategic locations throughout the greenhouse to control destructive moths. The VanderHouts even provide food – banker plants – for the beneficial insects. The plants provide them with food once they’ve cleaned out all of the pests.
Using biological control is more complicated than it seems.
“A lot hinges on doing it well,” he said. “Working with suppliers allows for better pest management. We’re so biological now that losing control of just one pest can spell disaster.”
Using a vertical integration system means controlling everything from production to packing, said Jan. Once the cucumbers are picked, they’re moved to the packaging facility where they move down what looks like an assembly line. Individual cucumbers are wrapped, sorted by machine for size and grade, carefully placed in boxes, and machine palletized ready for shipment.
“The plastic seals in freshness and keeps the cucumber from dehydrating,” says Jan. A cucumber, he says, will last up to two weeks from the time that it is picked.
Cucumbers are packaged in cases of 12 and sold wholesale through Mucci Farms. Beverly Greenhouse’s employees pack anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 cases each day nearly year round. Harvest starts on Jan. 1 and comes to an end at the end of November when planting begins again.
The only step the VanderHouts don’t control is seedling growth, but that’s about to change. Currently, new greenhouses are being built. In the very near future, Beverly Greenhouses will not only grow, package and ship their own cucumbers, but they’ll also grow the seedlings that they currently buy in. Adding this step to the system will allow further pest control.
“The jury’s still out as to whether or not we can do it better,” said Jan.
When asked why cucumbers, Jan shrugged. “Our family’s been growing vegetables in greenhouses for 54 years, and exclusively cucumbers since 1978,” he says. “You have to specialize in something and this is just where we landed.”
— This article is one in a series produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario. The stories highlight innovative initiatives in the areas of animal welfare and environmental stewardship in Ontario agriculture. To submit a profile idea, email firstname.lastname@example.org