A sea of green as far as the eye can see.
More than 1.6 million Bell Pepper, Cucumber and Tomato plants were planted from mid-December to mid-January in our greenhouses in Leamington, Ontario. This is an exciting time for NatureFreshTM Farms as this marks the beginning of a new season. With a freshly cleaned greenhouse and a new crop, our growers can’t wait to get 2017 started on the right foot. Our 130 acres of greenhouses are at full capacity as we eagerly await our first picks.
The planting process is fairly similar throughout all commodities. In Ontario, NatureFreshTM will generally plant our Bell Pepper, Cucumber and Tomato plants within the same period of time. Because of the harsh winters in Canada, all of our crops are commonly pulled at some point in late November in to early December. The plants we receive for our new crop are roughly 6 weeks old upon arrival, giving us a head start into the new growing season. By the end of January, a new crop will have been planted across all of our greenhouses. This is where the fun begins!
Our first stop is our Tomato crop. Isaac Braun, the Lead Grower at our Phase 4 greenhouse oversees 15 acres of Tomatoes along with 15 acres of Bell Peppers. There is no shortage of variety in our Tomato crop. You can find Tomatoes on the Vine (TOVs), Beefsteak, Cherry, Grape, Cocktail, Roma and Heirloom Tomatoes. Whether you’re making a sauce, salad, grilling, or snacking, NatureFreshTM has just the right Tomato to get the job done.
Our Tomato plants are roughly 5 weeks old when they’re planted. It can take up to 2 months before the plant begins producing and depending on the time of the year and the variety of the plant, a Tomato crop will grow an average of 8 to 10 inches a week. Growing at this rapid and steady pace, the plants can grow to 45-50 feet in length after their 11-month growing season. That is twice as tall as the average two-story house. Once the plant has reached the end of its growing season, a typical TOV plant can produce in excess of 50lbs of product, depending on the variety.
TOV plants will generally have 6 clusters of Tomatoes and 2 sets of flowers at a time, consistency is one of the great traits of the TOV. Week after week, their production doesn’t vary nearly as much as other commodities. If you’re a Tomato enthusiast, this means a consistent supply of Lycopene, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and the list goes on. A rich nutrient base gives this staple item staying power in everyone’s kitchen.
Bell Peppers are next on the docket and are one of the largest commodities that we grow at NatureFresh™. They take up the majority of our acreage in Leamington consisting of 105 acres of greenhouses. I caught up with Herman Fehr (Yes, same name, we’re not related!) who is the Lead Grower of all of our Bell Peppers at NatureFreshTM. With the help of 3 assistant growers, Herman manages an impressive amount of acreage that produces red, yellow, and orange Sweet Bell Peppers.
Bell Peppers typically have slower growing tendencies, taking roughly 3+ months to produce a fruit from the planting stage. Depending on the time of the year and weather, an average plant will grow 3-5 inches a week and will produce roughly 20lbs of product in a season. This is good news for all Bell Pepper lovers. Not only are Bell Peppers delicious, but they are also an excellent source of Vitamin C. One Yellow Bell Pepper has 3 times the amount of Vitamin C compared to an Orange. Some would say, “A Bell Pepper a day keeps unhealthy skin away”.
Lastly, we have our Cucumbers, the fastest growing crop at NatureFreshTM Farms. Jake Neufeld is the man in charge of controlling the wild fire that is cucumbers. Cucumbers grow an average of 12 inches per week and must be picked every day to keep up with production.
A single cucumber plant can produce 35-40 lbs of product in their 6-month growing season and can have as many as 9 Cucumbers on one plant at any given time. Because the yield is so high, a Cucumber plant’s life cycle is only 7 months long from seed to the last harvest. Therefore, NatureFreshTM will have 2 crops within a calendar year.
From seed to the planting stage, a Cucumber plant is 24 days old. From the planting stage to the first pick, it only takes approximately 4.5 weeks until we can begin harvesting. This quick turnaround is what allows growers to rotate the crop twice within the year. It’s a high paced crop that requires 24/7 monitoring and quick reactions to any imbalances. Water levels are particularly crucial as Cucumbers are 95% water. Fortunately, because of their high-water content, keeping cool and hydrated is never difficult.
In order to keep all of our plants healthy, regardless of commodity type, a detailed support system is put in place to ensure the plants are grown in a controlled manner. Matt McRae, Lead Grower at Phase 6, gave me the rundown of how this process works. Strings are hung from crop wires above the crop then clipped/wrapped around the plant giving it support and guiding its growing path. As the plant grows, it will attempt to grow as many heads as possible. At NatureFreshTM Farms, we’ve found the most efficient way to grow the majority of our plants is by allowing the plant to grow with two heads. The roots have enough strength to support two heads without hurting the production of the main head.
In order to get the plant to focus its energy on the main heads, you must remove or prune the excess plant heads. Workers will work through the crop to locate all the excess heads and prune them immediately. If these excess heads were allowed to continue growing, they would begin producing vegetables as well which would put too much strain on the root stock. An unhealthy plant system will yield far less product if there are too many off shoots from the main stalk.
Each commodity has its own needs; some require more water, some like it warmer and some need a little more TLC to produce the best quality fruit. Each grower is trained to adhere to the demands of each commodity and to maintain strict quality standards that NatureFresh™ is known for. Within each variety or commodity for that matter, the needs of the plants can vary. For example, a Red Bell Pepper and a Yellow Bell Pepper don’t necessarily have the same growing recipe. At NatureFreshTM, we ensure our plants are receiving exactly what they require to guarantee the highest quality product. To put it in perspective, it is like making the perfect salad. It takes care, attention, and the balance of variety to create the masterpiece.
An optimal growing environment creates a healthy plant; a healthy plant creates a high-quality product. Starting the season off properly is crucial to the success of the entire crop. It’s a busy time in the greenhouse and everyone is on high alert to make sure everything is executed properly. With an excess of 1.6 million new plants arriving for the 2017 crop, it’s a team effort to get everything planted efficiently & properly; our teams are up for the challenge.
“Growing is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle”, says Matt M. our Phase 6 Grower. Our Growers are spending countless hours in the crop doing the little things that are essential when creating an exceptional product. It really is a lifestyle.
With 1.6 million plants in our Leamington, ON greenhouses alone, imagine the workforce of people it takes to care for those plants and the hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables they will grow this year. It takes a special group of people to come together to make it all happen, at NatureFresh™ Farms, they are the Grow-to People.
Now that all of our crops have found their home, I’ll be focusing my attention on some other aspects of our operation, but I’m confident I’ll be checking in on them in the future.
For more information on how we grow, read more here.