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Greenhouse grows year-round produce

Before Chris and Rachel Buhler established their hydroponics operation near Saskatoon in 2007, they had conducted research into food security in Saskatchewan.

“We learned that this province produces only about 4.7 per cent of its own vegetables, compared to Manitoba and Alberta, which produce close to 50 per cent. Our climates are similar, so why are we so far behind?” asks Chris.

“That inspired us,” says Rachel. “We wanted to go into year-round production, something that’s not very common in our cold climate.”

With the growing movement towards buying local, a hydroponics greenhouse operation would help to supply fresh produce to the Saskatoon-area market all year. The taste of a tomato ripened on the vine doesn’t compare to one that’s been picked green and spent many days in transport.

The brother and sister team grew up on a dairy farm near Osler, north of Saskatoon. Both wanted to stay on their grandparents’ farm and work at something viable other than grain or dairy farming. Rachel has a master’s degree in plant sciences, and Chris studied greenhouse management.

In 2009 the Buhlers wrote up a business plan and entered it into the University of Saskatchewan BioVenture Business Plan Chall-enge. They won the $50,000 grand prize, that helped procure financing to establish their hydroponics greenhouse business called Floating Gardens Ltd.

“It’s been slow going,” said Chris. “We did a number of things different when we constructed our greenhouses. First, we built the structure for year-round production, and our greenhouses can handle more snow load than the average one. We also put screening on all the vents and all entries have a double-door entrance, to keep out insects as much as possible. We have a wood-fired boiler and use waste wood products, although we have a backup gas boiler. That’s also part of our interest in being carbon neutral — we’re attempting to move in that direction.”

Chris and Rachel grow their plants in reusable plastic pots filled with coir, a biodegradable, soil-like substance made from the ground-up ripe husks of coconut. The operation is high tech with a computer controlling all of the venting and heating, and computerized fertilizer machines injecting the correct nutrients at the right time for each crop. “Different crops each need different nutrients at different times. Not only does a tomato need different nutrients than a cucumber, but at different times during its growing stage,” said Rachel.

As part of their integrated pest-management system, the Buhlers use insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps to control harmful insects. They also purchase bumblebees to pollinate fruiting crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and eggplants.

Chris and Rachel currently market their fresh produce, including tomatoes, mini-cucumbers, eggplant, greens, herbs and edible flowers at farmers’ markets and various restaurants.

“We’re very careful about food safety. We take great care to market only fresh, clean, delicious produce. We usually pick it the day before we take it to market and our tomatoes taste like a tomato grown in a backyard garden. We grow only a Persian mini-cucumber that’s about six inches long — very fresh and crisp, and not seedy. Arugula is very popular and we harvest it at its optimal age,” said Chris.

Launching into the greenhouse operation has been somewhat of a learning curve for the Buhlers. “Something as simple as sourcing a particular piece of equipment can mean a two-day research project,” said Rachel.

“But it’s a brand new industry in this province, and one that’s exciting and fun to be in,” she adds.

For more information, contact Chris or Rachel Buhler at greatpro [email protected]

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