CAN (AB): Thiel's Greenhouses expands with hydroponic lettuce, greens

After growing for the spring ornamental season for seven years, Thiel's Greenhouses' owner Nadine Stielow decided to expand the business, in east central Alberta Canada, into fresh food production. She added a 5,000 sq ft greenhouse to the current growing space for ornamentals and is currently equipping this greenhouse with the right techniques to grow greens and herbs hydroponically. A crowdfunding campaign has helped her realize this project. The campaign raised a tidy sum for a Dutch growing system, but was primarily initiated to provide top of mind awareness and promotion of Stielow's project. In September 2018, she is planning to have her first batch of greens 'floating'.

Nadine Stielow inside one of the three ponds.

Why food?
Stielow bought Thiel's Greenhouses in 2010 and always had an entrepreneurial vision for change and growth in her community. She always had the desire to grow food and now feels it is the right time to start. "On the one hand, I would like to provide a healthy option to more northern consumers. On the other hand, by growing greens, I will achieve my goal of creating a more sustainable year-round business by utilizing the space and resources we have. Currently we have to heat four of our glass structures year-round, and a seasonal ornamental crop is only using the space for 6-7 months. Year-round growing would offer additional employment opportunities and would help with staff retention. Losing valuable team members each year to jobs that are more permanent/not seasonal is a tough way to operate", she says.

The mid-term goal for the business is to transition from the primary crop of seasonal ornamentals to growing fresh food year-round and using the flower component as a draw for existing customers and to pique interest of new customers.

Crowdfunding campaign
To bring top of mind awareness to the project, Stielow initiated a crowdfund campaign. "By making my plans very public and asking people to get involved it created an excitement that would not have happened by going the more traditional route of a business banking loan." The campaign, that was on a 'boost and reward' based structure, was launched on October 13 and the goal was 25,000 dollars for the needed 250,000 dollars for the venture. The campaign itself took 45 days and ended in a success with total funds raised being just under 30,000 dollars. Funds went directly to ordering and placing the deposit on a growing system from Dutch company Dry Hydroponics. "The funds raised are only a portion of what's needed to complete the project, but the spin-off effect of the crowdfund campaign in terms of how much it engaged my local community and business partners is an exceptional bonus to venturing into a unique way to raise capital."

Stielow's trial pond.

The Greenhouse
For this new project, she expands the current 50,000 sq ft total growing space for ornamentals with a 5,000 sq ft hydroponic glass facility in which she is projecting to produce 1300-1500 heads of herb or lettuce per week. This facility is a used facility - it has been taken down elsewhere in Canada and set up at Thiel's property. Lettuce and herbs will grow in three ponds, of which the first pond has just been poured with cements. At the same time, the heating is under construction at the moment as it will be heated with two high efficiency boilers. But more upgrades are in the pipeline, like automated control systems for heat, lights, vents and so on and watering systems like flood tables, trough, drip lines and booms. Additionally, the facility will be equipped with LED lightning and screens and Stielow is currently searching for the right products. "This month, I will visit the Netherlands and afterwards, IPM Essen in Germany. Through these visits, I am eager to gather more information on growing this crop hydroponically and by utilizing a strong IPM program." 

Niche market
With this new facility, Stielow will grow greens and herbs for the local food market, which is a niche market. Next to growing a healthy and clean product and offering it to the community, she is also dedicated to move the Alberta community to buy more local products and show them the fresh local food chain that exists in Alberta. "The crowdfunding campaign was a means to partner with other local businesses from all over my area, in order to highlight their niche goods and services. I utilized the themes of 'my favorite things', healthy lifestyles and the importance of supporting a local, family run, small business movement. I then tied it all together to show people that we have fresh local amazing food products being produced right here in Alberta and that they can support these businesses by spending their dollars with them (or by asking their local grocer or restaurant to offer the products)."

"Great industry"
Stielow is eager to learn and is grateful to be working in an industry where colleagues offer a willingness to help and share knowledge. "Before I built my own trial ponds, I had the opportunity to mentor with another Alberta hydroponic lettuce grower - who uses the growing system from Dry Hydroponics. Not only did they agree that I join them for the day to learn, ask questions and get hands on experience, they continue to be supportive and encouraging in this next venture. How great is that! So very open and welcoming. It's an industry with a very positive culture that I've come to enjoy and embrace as I grow my business".

Follow Stielow's new project progress on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information:
Thiel's Greenhouses
Nadine Stielow

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