Greenhouse industry seeing turnaround, says AGGA president, but systemic and competitive challenges remain for province’s growers
By Tim Kalinowski
Alberta’s greenhouse industry is in a good position at the moment, but there are also lingering issues which have the potential to create future drags on growth among Alberta’s greenhouse growers, says Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association president Alberta Cramer.
“The state of the industry is fairly positive right now,” he concludes. “Prices have been fairly decent and quality of the product is good. It’s still a tough business to be in for the smaller grower. You have to be a certain size grower now to be able to make a go at this industry unless you find a niche market somewhere. But vegetable prices the way they are, they are kind of geared to a bigger grower.”
Some of the challenges greenhouse growers face in Alberta, he says, is a higher minimum wage compared to other major greenhouse provinces like Ontario and British Columbia, a tough labour market and confusing labour laws.
“The Alberta greenhouse industry, relatively speaking, is very small,” explains Cramer. “We don’t even service our own market. For cucumbers we’re pretty good, and flowers we service pretty good. But for other vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, we could use a lot more in Alberta.
“But with the labour cost factored in, I wouldn’t say it has slowed our industry down yet— but it is a concern that B.C., for example, has a much lower per hour minimum wage than we do. And since Alberta Labour didn’t recognize greenhouses as farm anymore— we have had to pay commercial levels of overtime.”
Cramer is hopeful, while his organization did successfully lobby the former NDP government for certain exemptions to paying overtime, that the new Kenney government could rate all greenhouse operations as agricultural again instead of as commercial.
“We’re working with the new Kenney government to see we are put back into agriculture, and I think we will be successful,” he says. “Ontario and B.C. recognize all greenhouses as agriculture. “In Alberta the floral was separated from vegetable growers that way— and we are lobbying the provincial government to recognize us all as agriculture. That would put us on the same playing field as our sister provinces.”
One area where Cramer says he has fewer concerns is on the carbon tax.
“The carbon tax has been an impact for us, but we have been able to negotiate an 80 per cent reduction in Alberta,” he states. “And if Jason Kenney cancels the Alberta carbon tax, we will kick into the federal system, which is about the same in terms of having an 80 per cent reduction.
“For us it doesn’t hurt as much if Kenney cancels the carbon tax, but we are still paying 20 per cent more for fuel than we did before there was a carbon tax. That is still a concern, but natural gas is also fairly cheap right now; so it has been good that way.”
Cramer says a larger concern among his members is the increasingly difficult market for smaller-scale greenhouse growers. That is driven by market forces, he admits, and largely beyond anyone’s control.
“Lots of the smaller growers have focused on farmers’ markets, and they are finding niche markets,” he says. “That’s a beauty of a smaller greenhouse in a sense because you can service that local food market better. But I would say it is definitely tougher for the niche greenhouse grower now, and with all farming right now it is much the same.”
There is no easy answer to the conundrum, states Cramer, but one possible idea floated by some is having Alberta-based greenhouses switching over to year-round instead of seasonal production. Cramer says there are only a few greenhouses in Alberta right now who have made the switch over, and they are cashing in on the winter premium for vegetable prices in Canada’s larger box stores. But, he admits, the heating costs associated with such a shift puts it out of range for most small or even mid-sized growers.
“There are three greenhouses in Alberta now focusing on year-round production,” Cramer confirms. “We have one up in Lacombe and two here in Medicine Hat. “That seems to be the way it is trending now, certainly with larger producers,” he acknowledges, “but it is a very big investment to go there.”