Nova Scotia’s greenhouse industry shrinking

Maan Alhmidi 

Published: May 02, 2019 at 6 a.m.

Greenhouse-grown flower and potted plant sales are wilting in Nova Scotia.

The total sales and resales of flowers and plants grown in Nova Scotia greenhouses are down by 25.5 per cent over the last three years, an analysis of Statistics Canada data reveals.

Greenhouse farmers are competing with the big-box stores including Walmart, Sobeys and Canadian Tire. These giants sell a diverse collection of greenhouse products at low prices, and they provide a high-quality customer service, said Daina Budde, the owner of Waterville’s Glad Gardens Greenhouses.

“I suspect that I hire five times the amount of people per plant, and they’re qualified people. I have to pay them real money. I can’t pay the minimum wage,” said Budde.

“You can’t hire a kid and have them water everything. You’ll end up with dead plants.”

She can’t compete with big-box pricing. “We just simply can’t,” Budde said. “If you won’t buy it, we won’t grow it.”

Nova Scotians favour veggies over flowers

While estimates show that Nova Scotia’s total greenhouse-grown vegetable sales increased slightly by 1.64 per cent during the same three-year period, we are losing greenhouse space.

The total area taken up by greenhouses in Nova Scotia has decreased by almost six per cent over the last three years, according to StatCan numbers.

The total sales of the greenhouse products in the province also dropped from over $25 million in 2016 to less than $22 million last year.

To understand this pattern, StatCan analyst Serge DesRoches said, “it’s better to separate edible and non-edibles products.”

That’s where the whopping 25.5 per cent drop in greenhouse grown plants and flowers comes in. And on the flip side, a jump in veggie sales.

“When we look at greenhouse vegetables sales, the share calculated on total greenhouse products sales in Nova Scotia is showing a strong change in shares from 26.4 per cent in 2012 to 40.8 per cent in 2018,” said DesRoches. “Maybe there are good opportunities to sell greenhouse vegetables compare to ornamental products?”

Rural-urban divide stifles future of Nova Scotia growers

Budde, the owner of Glad Gardens, said there have been several recent closures of greenhouses in the Annapolis Valley. “I know of a couple around here,” she said.

While her greenhouse sales have increased, others are getting out of the business.

“They simply don’t have people who are willing to take over greenhouse operations when someone’s ready to retire or can’t run them anymore.”

Budde runs a family business with her husband. Her parents are semi-retired now, and her children are not interested in taking over, she said. “I will be faced with that situation at some point in the near future.”

At the same time, people are migrating from rural areas to urban centres, said Lord Abbey, an assistant horticulture professor at Dalhousie University. “We are losing the labour force in agriculture,” he said.

Another reason for the production drop is the major collapse of multiple greenhouses due to the heavy snowfall in 2015, the coordinator of Greenhouse Nova Scotia, Yvonne Thyssen-Post, said on her last day at the post.

“In too many cases, insurance wouldn’t cover it because it was considered an act of God,” Thyssen-Post said.

Greenhouse Nova Scotia has a core group of about 35 growers. The total number of commercial greenhouse growers in the province is well above one hundred, she said.

All of these growers are competing with products imported from outside Nova Scotia, according to Thyssen-Post. “A lot of tomatoes and cucumbers are coming in from Mexico,” she said, noting heating cost during the winter make it very expensive to Nova Scotia greenhouses owners to compete.

Canadian competition cramps Nova Scotia

There’s also competition from inside the country. Ontario greenhouse area represented 61 per cent of Canada’s total. And the total sales of the greenhouse products in Ontario increased from $1.65 billion to $1.76 billion between 2016 and 2018, according to StatCan data.

To be able to compete with cheaper products coming from outside the province, Nova Scotian greenhouse farmers are looking for support, but their effort has not been as fruitful as they would hope.

“Our interaction with government programs has generally been disappointing because they are modeled after one-crop-farm situations,” said Budde.

Glad Gardens is a farm, but it grows many kinds of products. “They (governments) love greenhouses that grow say tomatoes… It is easy on the paperwork,” said Budde.

She does a little bit of wholesale, but mostly retail. “Oh my God, the record keeping is just absurd, seriously absurd.”

Abby, the agriculture prof, said that more research is needed to come up with new technologies to develop the greenhouse industry. “There are so many challenges if you want to do greenhouse production,” he said. “You have to maintain your temperature, you have to maintain humidity, you have to supplement light, you have to make sure that the plants have good nutrition in terms of the soil to use.”

Plants also need fertilization and a lot of water, Abby said. Disease and pest control can also be persistent problems.

New innovations could help reduce the cost of the production, and encourage more people to invest in greenhouses. “People who go into it, they don’t make money, they don’t make profit,” Abby said. “They have so many challenges.”

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