How Canada Became A Greenhouse Superpower

Jun 16, 2016
Originally published on June 20, 2016 7:47 pm

If you're a home gardener in most of the country, your tomato plants are probably just getting started. It's not even officially summer.

Yet if you go to the grocery store, you'll probably see tomatoes that come from even farther north: Canada!

Our cold-weather neighbor sends us more tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers than we send the other way. Despite all the vegetable fields of California and Florida.

When I discovered this fact, I was so shocked that I decided to investigate.

I drove across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit into Canada and headed southeast toward the city of Leamington.

It was a chilly, slate-gray day in spring. But within an hour I started seeing the vegetable fields. They were indoors. Plants were flourishing inside vast see-through structures made of glass or plastic. Some of the greenhouses covered 50 acres; that's an area bigger than 30 football fields.

This is the main reason why Canada sends us so many tomatoes. It's the biggest concentration of greenhouses in North America.

"The Leamington area probably has about 1,500 acres of greenhouse production," says Paul Mastronardi, CEO of Mastronardi Produce Sunset Grown, a big vegetable grower here.

Mastronardi says it all came from a decision his grandfather made in the 1940s. Umberto Mastronardi had been growing vegetables here the regular way, in open-air fields.

"He had a trip over to Europe and saw greenhouses in Holland, and he said, 'That'll work in Leamington. Let's get [away from] the weather controlling our destiny,' " says Mastronardi.

In heated greenhouses, he could grow vegetables for most of the year.

The technology spread quickly through two different tightly knit communities in Leamington: the Italians and the Mennonites. Over the years, the greenhouses got bigger and more sophisticated.

Paul Mastronardi takes me inside one of his company's greenhouses. It's comfortably warm. The entire floor is smooth concrete. Endless rows of green tomato vines are hanging on lines from the ceiling; the vines reach 10 or 15 feet into the air.

"All the ripe fruit are basically at my waistline," Mastronardi says. "There's no bending, no ergonomic issue with harvesting the crop."

Each giant plant emerges from a small box that sits on top of a larger bag. The tomato plant's roots are in the bag, intertwined with crushed rock. A thin plastic tube also goes into that bag. That's how the plant gets water and nutrients.

Mastronardi says it's possible to harvest 10 or 20 times more tomatoes from an acre of land in a greenhouse like this than from an acre of open field.

It's still more expensive to grow tomatoes this way compared with open fields.
But Dave Harrison, editor of Greenhouse Canada magazine, says greenhouse operators can charge more for their tomatoes because "greenhouse produce has always been seen as a premium product." That's because the fruit is protected, and you can treat it more gently. "It's always picked at its prime, and I think consumers picked up on that very quickly. It was fresh," he says.

In recent years, Canadian greenhouse producers have led the way into new kinds of tomatoes, like those little ones that you can just pop into your mouth. "They've diversified so much into specialty mini-products," Harrison says. "The mini-tomatoes that you see, the grape tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes."

The United States hasn't developed a big greenhouse industry because it didn't need to. It had all those warm-weather fields in Florida or California.

That's now changing as American growers go after the high-end tomato market. Big new greenhouses are up and running in Michigan, Ohio and Texas. But many of the people running those greenhouses are Canadians who learned their trade in Leamington.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

If you have a garden, your tomato plants are probably just now getting started. But if you go to the store, you might seem ripe tomatoes that come all the way from Canada. Canada actually sends us more tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers than we send the other way. And that's despite all the vegetable fields in California and Florida. When our food and agriculture reporter Dan Charles realized this, he was surprised and decided to investigate.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I drove across Ambassador Bridge from Detroit into Canada and headed southeast toward the city of Leamington. It was a chilly, slate gray day in spring, but within an hour, I started seeing the vegetable fields - all indoors. They were growing the inside vast, see-through structures made of glass or plastic. Some of them covered 50 acres. That's an area bigger than 30 football fields.

PAUL MASTRONARDI: The Leamington area probably has about 1,500 acres of greenhouse production.

CHARLES: This is Paul Mastronardi, CEO of Mastronardi Produce Sunset Grown, a big vegetable grower here. This is the main reason why Canada sends us so many tomatoes. It's the biggest concentration of greenhouses in North America. Mastronardi says it all came from a decision his grandfather made in the 1940s. Umberto Mastronardi had been growing vegetables here in open-air fields.

MASTRONARDI: He had a trip over to Europe and saw greenhouses in Holland and said, you know, that'll work in Leamington, you know? Let's get out of the weather controlling our destinies.

CHARLES: He could heat the greenhouses and grow vegetables for most of the year. The technology spread quickly through two different tightly knit communities in Leamington - the Italians and the Mennonites. Over the years, the greenhouses got bigger and more sophisticated.

MASTRONARDI: Watch you don't put your hands into the machine.

CHARLES: Paul Mastronardi takes me inside one of his company's greenhouses. It's comfortably warm in here. Endless rows of green tomato plants are suspended from wires. The vines reach 10 or 15 feet into the air.

MASTRONARDI: All the ripe fruit are basically at my waistline, and so there is no bending. There is no ergonomic issue for a worker anymore to harvest the crop.

CHARLES: And the roots are in this tiny little box.

MASTRONARDI: Yeah, that cube is just what we start the baby plant in, and then underneath is a larger bag.

CHARLES: That bag is full of crushed rock, just something for the roots to grab onto. Little plastic tubes deliver the water and the nutrients that the plants need. Mastronardi says from each acre of land, you'll get 10 or 20 times more tomatoes in a greenhouse like this than you'll harvest from an open field. It's still more expensive to grow tomatoes this way compared to open fields, but Dave Harrison, editor of Greenhouse Canada magazine, says greenhouses can charge more for tomatoes because the fruit is protected. You can treat it more gently.

DAVE HARRISON: I think greenhouse produce has always been seen as a premium product 'cause it's always picked at its prime. And I think consumers picked up on that very quickly - that it was very fresh. It had very, very good shelf life.

CHARLES: In recent years, Canadian greenhouse producers led the way into new kinds of tomatoes, like those little ones you can just pop into your mouth.

HARRISON: Now they've diversified so much into specialty - mini products - the mini tomatoes you see - the grape tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes.

CHARLES: The United States has not developed a big greenhouse industry because it didn't need to. It had all those warm weather fields in Florida or California. That is now changing, as American growers go after that high-end tomato market. Big, new greenhouses are now up and running in Michigan, Ohio and Texas, but many of the people running those greenhouses are Canadians who learned how in Leamington. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.