Tunnel vision: the growing trend to more protected agriculture

Upon entering one of five high tunnels in November, Kyle Oakley is greeted with an unmistakeable green fragrance. His yellow, orange – and even black! -- grape tomatoes, are destined for the family-owned Goldsmith’s Farm Market and Bakery near Thornbury, Ontario.


What’s surprising is that over the last decade this third-generation apple grower has turned market gardener, channelling only two per cent of the 160 acres of apple production through the farm market. His parents Brad and Teresa, sister Krista and wife Debby are all-in on his local produce wager. 


“About a quarter of our high tunnels are devoted to grape tomatoes,” says Oakley. “Some of the heirloom varieties have beautiful flavours, but they have thin skins. The difficulty is lack of storability.”


Oakley speaks with a decade of retailer’s knowledge, and the grower’s experience of the family and highly skilled temporary foreign workers. High tunnels present an exciting opportunity to extend the growing season, but they hold peril too. There needs to be a willing customer to buy all that extra volume of premium-priced tomatoes.


In recent years, Ontario has become a training ground for entrepreneurs like the Oakley family who have developed farm markets acutely calibrated to their locale and customers. The Thornbury area is unique in its proximity to ski chalets and summer cottages. When the pandemic arrived, the region suddenly became a remote-working hotspot with city folks decamping for the Georgian Bay countryside.


The Oakley family’s market, with its array of farm-branded produce, artisan cheeses, locally raised meats and gourmet condiments was primed for the influx of new customers. Not only were there tunnel-grown tomatoes, raspberries and cut flowers, but a new 30 foot by 50 foot greenhouse built in 2018 ensured a longer growing season for tomatoes, cucumbers as well as a spring supply of hanging baskets and flower planters.


As the effects of mass vaccination take root, Goldsmith’s Farm Market sales, post-Thanksgiving, have begun to return to historical norms. Online sales have slowed. Cart size has declined. But recent trends haven’t dampened future plans. A newly minted DeCloet greenhouse, 35 feet by 190 feet, is about to come on stream for even more year-round production of hanging baskets, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.


Headquartered in Simcoe, Ontario, Pieter Berkel, sales for DeCloet Greenhouses, has observed the trajectory of “protected agriculture” over many years. Typically, protected agriculture refers to mulches, row covers, shade structures and high tunnels that extend the growing season. Controlled environment agriculture refers to year-round greenhouses that enable automation of temperature, humidity, light, carbon dioxide and nutrients.


DeCloet is currently building greenhouses in geographies as diverse as California, Florida, British Columbia and Newfoundland. Costs climb substantially from $2-$3 per sq foot for seasonal high tunnels to $8 to $10 per sq foot for year-round greenhouses.  


“It’s hard to find a field grower that transitions full-on to greenhouses,” says Berkel. “They usually start with high tunnels for better control over drought, rain and pests. The top five crops would be tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, berries and lettuce. I’m now starting to see squash and Asian vegetables such as bitter melon.”


Risks from weather events – spring frost, summer drought, fall rains – are motivating growers to try high tunnels (protected agriculture) and then upgrade to greenhouses (controlled environment agriculture) when appropriate.  


“I’m starting to see larger numbers of smaller-scale growers move to 3,000- to 5,000- square-foot greenhouses, especially in Ontario,” says Berkel.


He offers three pieces of advice for those transitioning to these growing methods.


Know your market. A vegetable grown under controlled environmental conditions must be sold at a higher price to recoup the investment. Will your customer pay such a premium?  And given the seasonality of vegetables, will your customer buy the glut of tomatoes in October? 


Be ready for maintenance. High tunnels require more repairs than greenhouses.


Schedule labour for hand harvesting. The volumes that can be produced in greenhouses are higher under controlled conditions, but you must have access to adequate labour for tending and harvesting the crop.


Another perspective on protected agriculture comes from Aldergrove, British Columbia where Mark Paul Koeman has been building greenhouses since 1992. His company, Alpine Greenhouse Services Ltd, is so busy, they’ve yet to need a website. In Delta, BC, 


there is a large hub of glass greenhouses built to optimize light transmission for vegetable production. However, in the last three to four years, there’s been an uptick in high tunnels in the Fraser Valley where berry growers are protecting strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, then hand-harvesting to get premium pricing. 


Koeman has also observed that as growers develop confidence with these new growing practices, they upgrade to greenhouses. “They are becoming more plant focussed,” he says. “In other words, they are more aware of the productive capabilities of each plant.”


“The move to more automation for efficiency is here,” says Koeman. “Two years ago, they wouldn’t be interested in investing $1500 to $2000 for an automatic roll-up. But roof venting and side ventilation take time. They now want to be free to walk away and manage other things.”


One understanding that crystallized during the pandemic is that specialty produce is not competitive without access to labour. 


“Labour has been an underlying issue,” says Koeman. “It’s not just an expense anymore. It’s now a hassle.”


Kyle Oakley agrees. The parking lot of Goldsmith’s Farm Market and Bakery is so busy it’s fender-bender territory. It’s a nice problem to have. Yet, despite all the infrastructure built to competitively sell direct to consumers, he still has one gnawing pain point: labour.


 “We wouldn’t be able to grow the quantity, quality or variety of produce on our farm if it wasn’t for our skilled team of 30 people that come from Jamaica each year,” says Oakley.


And the labour crunch is felt at the market too. He is forced to repeat to loyal customers standing in line with their goods: “Our outdoor checkout is currently closed due to staffing shortages.” 

Apple grower Kyle Oakley and his family have transitioned to market gardeners in the last decade with the help of high tunnels. With the purchase of Goldsmith’s Farm Market & Bakery in Thornbury, Ontario, they are confident enough to expand with two greenhouses to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and flowers. It’s an example of the trend to more protected and controlled environments. Listen to the Behind the Scenes podcast here >>



Publish date: 
Monday, November 22, 2021
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