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Ontario greenhouse growers look at cutting-edge advances

In an effort to contend with labor shortages, pests, food safety, and other challenges, Ontario’s greenhouse growers are tapping into a number of innovations.

“As a vertically integrated grower, we’re using all the latest technologies available to us to grow the best possible vegetables,” said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer for Pure Hothouse Foods Inc. BB #:170379 in Leamington, ON.

Some growers use high-pressure sodium lights to supplement natural sunlight.

Pure Hothouse Foods installed the lights in a few facilities, and Carl Mastronardi, president and CEO of Del Fresco Produce Ltd. BB #:194101 in Kingsville, ON, said this the type of light used in Del Fresco’s strawberry greenhouses.

Automation is another increasingly common theme.

“Automation to offset the growing shortage of general farm labor is constantly added where it makes good financial sense,” said Ray Wowryk, director of business development with Nature Fresh Farms Sales Inc. BB #:274537 in Leamington, ON, adding that many growers are using upgraded artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies to assist in crop management.

Some growers are also exploring indoor vertical farming, including Del Fresco.

“Our vertical farming is a very unique system—it doesn’t work like others where you’re growing in a warehouse on shelves,” Mastronardi said.

Called the LivingCube, he said it’s a very efficient growing method “where the plants actually get bathed by the light in the container. We’re going to grow microgreens and lettuce this way.”

The system produces living lettuce, basil, and microgreens all year, featuring 12 mechanized growing, germination, and irrigation machines, each built inside a proprietary insulated, 40-foot, stainless-steel growing chamber. The growing machines are individually climate controlled to optimize the environment and create a complete standalone growing system and independent growing facility.

Next, is packaging, and recent years have seen an uptick in demand for sustainability.

“Consumers are requesting more sustainable packaging,” Wowryk said.

In response, Nature Fresh has been working with retail partners to provide more eco-friendly options.

“Recently, we introduced a compostable tray for our mini cucumbers. Response has been very positive from our retail community, and customers have expressed gratitude through our social channels welcoming the change.”

Pure Hothouse Foods is also striving to reduce its carbon footprint with packaging alternatives.

“We’re transitioning our snacking tomato line to packaging that uses lidding film, which can reduce up to 25 percent of the plastic,” Veillon said. “The use of alternative bases such as palm fiber or sugarcane are emerging solutions that can be recyclable, biodegradable, or even compostable.”