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Norfolk grower big in tulip market

Replicating the seasons of Mother Nature is one of the secrets tulip growers use to produce these popular flowers six months of the year.

Jarja Floral is one of the top tulip producers, using the ebb and flow method of growing the tulips in water.

Jarja Floral International Corp, located on Charlotteville Road 8, is a large fresh-cut tulip operation. The story of how the company grew from the ground up is an interesting one, especially considering owner Raymond Oosterveld came to the business without a background in greenhouse operation.

Oosterveld did have a background in agriculture, though, growing up on a potato farm in Burford and going to college for agriculture.

“I was finishing school and coming back to the farm at the height of the Atkins diet,” he said. “We were looking at a 30 per cent reduction in crop size.”

The dismal outlook for potatoes at that time put a dent in his plans to continue the family tradition of growing potatoes. Oosterveld researched possible crops and came across growing tulips in greenhouses and tulip forcing. Tulip forcing is the practice of replicating winter conditions and bringing the plant into bloom earlier than it should be naturally.

Oosterveld settled on tulip forcing and has 2.5 acres under glass, offering fresh cut tulips from December through May.

“Tulips need to experience a winter, summer, fall and spring. We trick them by putting the bulbs in a cooler,” he explained.

The temperature in the cooler is brought down slowly to replicate fall. Once the required number of weeks are reached at cool temperatures, the bulbs are put in a greenhouse to grow.

Raymond Oosterveld holds a bin of cut tulips ready for shipping.

Starting from the ground up, Oosterveld looked at several different systems. His plan was to invest in what the future system would be – what would likely be popular in Holland in five years. Some of the systems looked at were growing in soil, a combination, using hydroponic only and the ebb and flow.

Ebb and flow was just starting at that time and Oosterveld saw it as the future.

“We picked the best of the systems we saw,” he said. “We invested in technology we thought the industry would go to. That was a relatively bold move at the time.

“We wanted to invest in something that was the future, not something that would have to be replaced in a few years. As you can imagine it’s a high capital investment, just to replace it in a few years.”

Although most people think that tulip bulbs continue to grow from the original bulb planted, Oosterveld said that is not the case.

“In between every layer there is an offspring layer that can grow,” he said. “It will decay and a tulip will come up from the offspring.”

The offspring layers don’t produce tulips that are the correct size for the fresh-cut flower market. This means that Oosterveld needs to import new bulbs every spring.

Bulbs are planted in a special tray that holds the bulb in place and is open on the bottom. The trays drain in the bottom and are refilled every hour.

The entire line uses a rolling bench system so workers can easily access the trays and individual plants. Each bulb produces one flower.

Oosterveld believes he is the only one using this particular system in Canada but there are other tulip growers using water forcing and soil.

“Once it’s in place you have a continuous and easy-to-operate system,” he said.

Oosterveld is capable of producing 18 million tulips per year. His primary customers are grocery stores, most of which are in the U.S. He also sells to a couple of wholesalers.

Building a strong relationship with the grocery stores over the years, Oosterveld has taken advantage of that to start a side business selling flowers grown by smaller producers to the U.S. This arm of the business has grown to encompass about 20 per cent of his annual sales.

After production is done for the year, this is one of his main efforts, along with repairing or improving his equipment. The farm has 50 acres, most of which is rented for cash crops.

At the peak of the season, he had 70 staff members. Until last year, all were locals. He noted that when COVID-19 hit, the local people stopped coming to work on the farm.

“That’s never really come back,” he said.

Last year he started with 10 migrant workers. This year, he has 20. The workers come from Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica. Last summer, he built a bunkhouse to provide accommodation for the workers. 


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