Paul Morden, The Observer – April 27, 2016 –
Roelands Plant Farms, a family-owned greenhouse operation near Forest, is expanding again.
After opening in 2013 with four acres, and doubling in size last year, owners Adrian and Jodi Roelands announced this week a second expansion is set to take the operation up to 12 acres of growing space at the farm on Douglas Line.
“That was our plan right from the start,” Adrian Roelands said.
Setting up a greenhouse operation involves a large investment in power lines, natural gas lines, boilers, warehouse space and other facilities, he said.
“When we brought all our infrastructure in, we brought it in for 12 acres.”
They started out with four acres growing seedlings for other greenhouse operations, and demand increased quickly because of growth in the greenhouse vegetable sector, he said.
Along with additional demand for seedlings — because of expansion of greenhouse operations in Leamington, Michigan and Ohio –Roelands Plant Farm has been able to grow quickly because of the quality of its plants, Roelands said.
“We’ve gotten really good reviews. People are happy with the plants, and want to order more.”
Starting from seeds, Roelands Plant Farm grows seedlings for between 18 and 50 days, and then ships the young plants out to greenhouse customers who grown them to maturity.
“We grow the babies, basically,” Jodi said.
“We do tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and some eggplant.”
November to February is peak season, and the couple fills in the off-season by growing lettuce.
“We developed the product in-house,” she said.
“It’s a living lettuce.”
It’s packaged and sold in its growing medium, so customers can take it home from the store and harvest fresh lettuce at lunch or dinner.
She said they started out marketing the lettuce themselves but now market it through Pure Flavor, a company in Leamington.
Lettuce isn’t a common greenhouse product in southwestern Ontario, but the couple was looking for something to fill space in the off season.
Greenhouses often grow flowers under contract during off-season months but those plants can come with pests and disease.
“It’s very important we have a clean environment for the plants, because they’re small seedlings,” she said.
“We don’t want to be introducing pests and diseases in the greenhouse,” so lettuce provides a “clean alternative,” Roelands said.
The Roelands both had backgrounds in the greenhouse business. Jodi’s family started the Enniskillen Pepper Co., a greenhouse operation near Petrolia, and Adrian worked in the industry.
After farming with her parents for a few years, the couple decided to branch out on their own.
She said they went looking for farmland with access to natural gas, municipal water and the electrical service needed to set up a new a greenhouse operation.
In the end, a relative sold them 100 acres that fit the bill.
“It was very kind of him to do that, because he wasn’t looking to sell,” she said.
Roelands wouldn’t reveal how much it has cost to build and expand the couple’s operation, but said it’s a large investment.
“Any agriculture operation, these days, is,” she added.
Work has already begun on levelling land for the expansion, with construction expected to begin soon.
Adrian said future expansions at the farm aren’t expected to come at the same pace.
“The next time we build, it’s a major infrastructure investment again,” he said.
Jodi said they have been able to staff the greenhouse locally.
The work is seasonal. There are currently approximately 45 people working at the greenhouse, full and part-time, and 160 were working there during the busiest day of the most recent peak season.
“We have a really great workforce of local people,” she said.
She said the couple is very pleased with how the operation has grown, and added, “That we can expand this rapidly just shows the health of the greenhouse sector.”
Lambton County is home to only a handful of large vegetable greenhouse operations, but officials at the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership believe the sector has potential.
“Over the last five or 10 years we’ve seen a variety of greenhouses pop up in the area,” said Matthew Slotwinski, with the partnership.
Lambton has fewer operations than the counties around it, but there is potential for growth, particularly since the area has things greenhouses need, including access to natural gas and a temperate climate, Slotwinski said.
“We think it’s one of the best opportunities for growth in the agricultural industry locally,” he said.
“We have the land, we have the infrastructure.”
The partnership is also eager to encourage more operations like Envirofresh, a large greenhouse St. Clair Township that uses carbon dioxide and waste steam from a CF Industries plant there.
Ontario’s move to a cap and trade system for carbon could create opportunities for more greenhouse operations located next to industries in Sarnia-Lambton, Slotwinski said.
“If you look at Envirofresh, they’re actually a carbon negative facility,” he said.