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  • Norfolk Farms

Bartsch Produce has brought a long-standing Norfolk County greenhouse operation to a new level

The company started as a family farm about 15 years ago on Fairground Road with Isaak Bartsch started growing greenhouse cucumbers. He learned about growing in greenhouses by trial and error, plus hiring consultants for help.


Richard Bartsch picks one of the hydroponic English cucumbers grown in the family greenhouse operation year round. Cucumbers are picked when they reach a certain diameter.

Today, Isaak, sons Richard and Jake partnered together and had been farming for a couple of years when the former Lake Erie Tobacco cucumber greenhouse on Hazen Road came up for sale. This was a larger operation and a decision was made to move.


The present operation has 7.5 growable acres under plastic. Both the Bartsch’s operation on Fairground Road and the former Lake Erie Tobacco grew cucumbers only. With some retrofits, Boston lettuce and tomatoes were added at the new location.


All the growing is done hydroponically. Both the cucumbers and tomatoes are grown in rockwool sponge which is watered through the hydroponic system. The lettuce is planted directly in soil plugs, which are put in troughs with water flowing through it.


Richard got his expertise from his father. “I just grew into it,” he said. “I learned most of what I know from my dad but he learned it the hard way.”


Tomatoes

The tomatoes grown by Bartsch Produce are all roma, as this is what their distributor wants. It takes 12 weeks after planting before the tomatoes are ready to harvest. The vines are suspended and grow about 13 feet up, where they are suspended on a cable. Vines are good for eight or nine months, then need to be replaced. It takes two weeks to remove the old plants and plant new ones. The tomatoes come with two seeds already planted in a rockwool block. This block is set on a rockwool slab filled with fertilized water and then irrigated through the day.


The hydroponic Roma tomato plants grow in a rock wool block, which is placed on a larger rock wool system the roots grow into. Fertilizer-infused water is fed through the larger system the plants sit on.

Tomatoes are harvested manually, picked by hand while still on the vine. Tomatoes are then packed in a plastic clamshell, which is used for retail in the store.

One of the challenges of growing tomatoes in the Leamington area is disease travels from one greenhouse to another, with the close proximity of the farms. The potential is there for disease to wipe out the crop.


“Us being out in the country far from any other greenhouse operators, we seem to be pretty isolated from disease,” Richard said.


Lettuce

Lettuce seeds are planted in a tray with one-inch square plugs. Seeds are planted in stages so a whole larger tray can be planted in the greenhouse. The plugs are removed from the tray and dropped into holes cut into a NFT trough that fertilized water flows through.


The lettuce plants are grown in plugs, then transplanted into hydroponic troughs in the main greenhouse. Fertilized water flows through the troughs.

Boston lettuce is a crop the Bartsch family added since buying the greenhouse operation on Hazen Road.

Lettuce is all Boston variety. It grows in six stages in the greenhouse so harvest is on a constant basis once per week. It is harvested with clippers and then root is thrown out. As soon as the plant is harvested, another is planted. The trays are all on wheels that slide to enable simple movement.


Lettuce is then packaged in plastic clamshells to hold three heads.


Cucumbers

Cucumbers also arrive at the greenhouse with two seeds planted in a rockwool block. The block is also set on a larger rockwood slab with water flowing through it as needed.


The cucumbers plants are received at about a foot in height, and are trained to grow up strings. These also stretch up 14 feet towards the light filtered through the plastic. Cucumbers are harvested when they reach a certain diameter.


Cucumber harvest takes place every day. Once harvested, the cucumbers go to a line where they are shrink wrapped and sorted by length.

The cucumber plants are changed three times per year. It takes six to eight weeks to the first harvest after replanting.


The Greenhouse

A natural-gas-fired hot water system is used to provide heat. Automated venting is used to let heat out in the warmer weather. The heat and venting keep the greenhouse at a constant temperature throughout the year. “Everything is climate controlled and stays at a consistent temperature year-round,” Richard said.


The Challenges

All product is sent to Mucci’s International Marketing in Leamington. This company is one of the largest retailers in North America.


The big input costs are natural gas and fertilizer. Natural gas prices have gone up substantially. Fertilizer prices have doubled. Less fertilizer is needed than in the field, and Richard said with the fertilizer mixed with water, and the water being recycled, it helps. The fresh water comes from wells on the property, so that is a constant. Packaging costs have increased.


Although all these inputs have gone up, the amount paid for the end product has not. Pricing is influenced by Mexican and American product coming into Canada and flooding the market.


“When Leamington has a bunch of product come on at once, it also floods the market,” Richard said.


With natural gas being a major input, the Bartschs are considering alternatives, but don’t know what is viable.


“We are thinking about it,” Richard said. “Heating is one of the most expensive parts of growing.”

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