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It’s always a beautiful day in Mr. Kuivenhoven’s neighbourhood

There’s a sense of visceral peace which descends in the midst of 120,000, maybe 150,000 multi-coloured Gerbera Daisies.

Ladies in a greenhouse looking at Gerbera Daisies
Katie Paget smiles as brightly as the bouquet of Gerbera daisies she’s preparing for shipping.

Factor in light gently filtered through a hectare’s worth of greenhouse glass and add a mildly tropical, carefully controlled climate well into the comfort range, and it’s hard to not consider oneself inside a uniquely beautiful, calm and happy place.

“A lady came in (during an open house event) and said ‘Just give me a lawn chair and a glass of wine,’” smiled PH Kuivenhoven Greenhouses Inc. president Gilbert Kuivenhoven. “It gives you a whole ambiance there, makes you think you are in Mexico or some southern resort.”

PH Kuivenhoven Greenhouses’ aesthetic productivity did not come about without years of hard work. When Gilbert’s father Pieter purchased the 92-acre former tobacco farm along Otterville Road on the east side of Oxford Road 59 from that community, it was a run-down shell of its former self. “A disaster,” Gilbert confirmed.

The house was fixed up enough to be habitable and Gilbert and his brother Peter took a year off school to help their father install their original 34,000-square-foot greenhouse shipped from Holland on bare land.  The foundational crop was roses, planted directly into the ground beginning in 1991 says Gilbert, until an economically-driven transition to Gerbera daisies in 2005.

“Roses could be imported cheaper than we could grow them ourselves,” Gilbert explained of competition from countries including Ecuador, where the flowers could be grown outside, eliminating capital and operational costs associated with greenhouses. “Basically no energy cost and labour was very cheap.”

Pieter Kuivenhoven chose Gerbera daisies not only because they were bright and colourful, but also difficult to import. The head of the flower is on a disc at a different angle from the stem Gilbert explains, meaning they don’t lay flat. If they are packed for shipping they typically are dry, which does not improve their condition.

“That’s kind of detrimental to the flowers. Our strength is we ship them on water.”

PH Kuivenhoven grows 80 different varieties of Gerbera daisies, one and multi-coloured, two-toned options including contrasting lighter and darker petals, centres ranging from green to dark or a combination of light and dark. They are shipped across Canada from Newfoundland to Alberta to wholesalers, and thence onward for end uses including day-to-day enjoyment, weddings, funerals or as a floral ‘pick-me-up.’ “They’re really a cheerful flower,” says Gilbert.

Some of their product ends up in the United States, not directly at the moment.

“But that will soon happen, we hope,” said Kuivenhoven, waiting on a supply-chain-challenged truck delivery.

In very broad terms, designers seem to choose monochromatic flowers which work better with their palates, while members of the public prefer two-tone alternatives. The greenhouse selects bright, vibrant colours says Gilbert, particularly two-tone varieties which seem to sell well. Beauty is however in the eye of the beholder, with a wide variety the end goal.

“We just offer it all so we can supply and keep everyone happy.”

Plants produce for three years, after which they are replaced, maturing to production at around eight weeks of age.

“And then barring any setbacks, you pick for three years straight.”

Flowers are grown at a density of 6.5 per metre, with that space expected to produce between 250 and 400 blooms annually. The original 34,000-square-foot greenhouse was incrementally expanded over time to a cumulative 110,000 square feet in 2017.  Another 113,000 square feet of covered space was added that year in conjunction with Gilbert’s sale of his Dunnville-area Gerbera daisy operation, part of plans to join his brother Peter in an expanded effort, allowing their father Pieter to officially retire. Pieter does however drive truck for a couple of loads of flowers weekly and enjoys growing a garden on-site.

Gilbert in a greenhouse surrounded by gerbera daisies
Gilbert Kuivenhoven has seen the full journey of PH Kuivenhoven Greenhouses Inc. from 34,000 square feet to its current five acres, with a further two-and-a-half acre expansion planned. The facility producers over 6,000,000 Gerbera daisies which are shipped from Newfoundland to Alberta and south of the American border.

PH Kuivenhoven employs 30, eight migrants with the balance including full, part-time and student workers. “With that comes responsibility,” says Gilbert. “You want to make good decisions because you’ve got 30 people on the line. “It’s not just me and my family.”

Gilbert currently operates PH Kuivenhoven Greenhouses in partnership with wife, co-owner and co-operator Wilma, who also does the books.

“We do this together,” Gilbert emphasized. “Without Wilma, this place would not be.”

The couple has six children, one of whom works in the business, two others work elsewhere and three are in school.

There is potential for another generation to continue, says Gilbert. “There is always hope for that, but they have to want it themselves,” he emphasized. “It’s a lifestyle, not a job.”

Similarly to the dairy industry, it is a 365 day-per-year commitment says Gilbert, requiring a heightened level of personal hands and eyes-on commitment.

“I always say ‘Cows can at least walk to water, but plants can’t,’” he laughed. “You’ve got to know the health of your crop, what’s going on. “You have to be in tune with your crop, know if it’s out, why it’s out and determine how to correct it again.”

There is a fine balance between generative growth which produces flowers, and vegetative growth which results in larger, leafier plants. “You can’t sell leaves,” Kuivenhoven smiled.

Gerbera daisies can also be challenged by both pests and disease, both of which can hurt production compared to thriving growth.

“I like to have it at 100 per cent or even 110 per cent,” said Gilbert. “When it’s going well and producing well that just gives you satisfaction because the other things flow out of that.”

The operation has been ‘greened’ as much as possible, recognizing both an economic and regulatory perspective. Natural gas co-gen capability produces hydro and heat while CO2 recaptured from the boiler is pumped back into the greenhouses as a form of natural fertilizer, extending operations into ‘tri-gen’ territory. Water and nutrients are also recycled.

“If you save 40 per cent of your nutrients, it’s good business,” says Gilbert, although associated infrastructure costs affect the profitability percentage of the equation.

Expansion plans are in the works to grow from the current roughly five acres or two hectares under glass, with another hectare or 2.5 acres. Data analysis following the 2017 expansion indicates that plastic-based covering outperforms the original glassed-in area by roughly 20 per cent, and the expansion will also feature poly materials.

“Growth is much better,” Gilbert explained, attributing the benefits to being able to better maintain a Gerbera-friendly higher humidity and better light conditions. His plan is to maintain the current level of over 6,000,000 daisies annually in the two poly-based facilities, replacing daisies in the glassed space with hydrangeas. As well being better suited to that particular environment, their addition will provide operational diversification. On occasion, a new client’s reaction to their focus on Gerbera daisies has been along the lines of, ‘Is that all?’

“You make yourself more attractive if you’re able to offer something else,” Gilbert explained.

In conclusion, what began for Gilbert as a 16-year-old’s adventure has grown from a business defined by square feet under glass, to hectares. The company’s mission statement defines the journey as a tribute to God’s honour and glory, crediting His blessings. In addition,

Kuivenhoven has enjoyed being part of a family business whose progress has included an enjoyable and productive journey.

“It was a dream of dad’s. We did all we could to help him fulfil it and it’s grown to this point we have today.”

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