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Hans van Gellecum, Heritage Farms

CAN (ON): Snack tomato grower builds 18-hectare facility

The horticultural industry in Leamington is growing easily at 50 hectares a year at the moment. Those numbers might not be a surprise when looking at projects like Heritage Farms, an 18-hectare snack tomato greenhouse currently being built. Hans van Gellecum, director of operations, tells more about the development of the industry and the role of the company in it.

18 hectares
“This is phase one. The warehouse and everything else is already prepared for a 36-hectare facility. It will take about a season to get everything up and running in this new facility." Speaking is Hans van Gellecum and he's showing the new greenhouse at Heritage Farms, one of the massive greenhouses currently being built in Leamington. "It will take about a season to get everything up and running over here. If that's ready, we will continue to look towards the future and possibly double in size." 

Snack tomatoes 
But let's dive into this venture first. Just like the other two greenhouses, Hans has come to supervise since moving to Canada about ten years ago, Cecelia Farms and Hazel Farms, there will be snack tomatoes in here. Hans takes care of the expansion as well as the crop in the different ventures. "The crop, of course, is the most important. We're working with very professional teams and supervisors in each greenhouse. Currently, we're looking for a grower and maintenance manager for this project, to keep the high level of quality in the crop." 

“Snack tomatoes and other specialties are a growing market in North America", he says. "On Cecelia Farms and Hazel Farms we grow them organically, on a total acreage of ten hectare. We're looking into expansion opportunities for these ventures as well - but first, we're answering to the rising demand for conventional snack product."

The product of the three greenhouses is marketed via Mastronardi Produce/Sunset. "We work on a basis of contracts and our sales partner is in direct contact with the market. We pack our product fully based on their demand. Therefore we'll realise quite a big buffer zone and an extensive packaging area. Most of it goes in 2-pound bowls but especially in the organic market we see many packagings: pulp trays, clamshells, top-seals – you name it. We want to be very flexible in this, to answer directly to the market demand and maintain a high service level to Sunset." 

New greenhouse
The greenhouse is being built by South-Essex Fabricating, and it’s being prepared for the Leamington weather. “In Leamington, there is more light when compared to The Netherlands, but the summers are a lot more aggressive,” says Hans, who grew up in the Netherlands. “In the summers temperature can get quite high in this area in a very clammy and humid way. Pulling the cultivation through the summer season can be quite a challenge.”

“Newer, higher, better greenhouses should be able to better deal with the heat,” Hans continues. “So the new greenhouse will be a typical Dutch greenhouse of 7.20m height. All the glass for the greenhouse will be high-haze double AR Albarino glass by Cultilene and the screens are Luxous 1147 FR screens from Svensson. Since we have to deal with harsh winters as well, we will have a heating system provided by South-Essex Fabricating.”

Provided of course everything goes as planned. “Local greenhouse builders are quite busy, their schedule for next year is already filling up,” says Hans. “Building this year started quite late because of the weather and the rain. The constructors have managed to get back on track somewhat, but there is still a lot that needs to happen. Fortunately, we're working in two 9-hectare blocks, each one on one side of the central corridor. This way we work efficiently and the various suppliers don't have to wait for one other. On one side the gutter installation can continue whereas the screen installers work on the other side." 

Codema and Hoogendoorn are also involved in the project, working with local partner Gryphon and Form Flex Canada. "We know them from other jobs and chose for reliable partners. That's also how we've designed the facility: the water system and the technical equipment is chosen for its reliability. Growing in this area also means growing more distant from service teams, so we're looking for a care-free and functional installation." 

Disease prevention
The pressure of diseases is one of the biggest challenges that growers face. “Especially when growing organically, diseases can be a big issue,” says Hans. “In Leamington, you have strong pests that blow in, but we do what we can to keep viruses out. Here in Canada ToBRFV seems to not be too bad, but when traveling abroad you have to be very careful not to take anything back with you.”

The new facility is also being prepared with a few countermeasures to decrease the likelihood of any form of contamination. “Right now in the new facility we are taking care to arm ourselves with disinfecting units,” says Hans. “At each entrance, there will be a sluice, and we also try to keep people outside of the facility when possible.”

Another major challenge to prepare for is the labor shortages, like most growers across the globe Hans is also dealing with a lack of skilled workers. “It is getting more difficult to find the right people for these jobs,” he says. This is why there is a big focus on automating a lot of systems within Hans’ greenhouses. “Bogaerts is running a complete pepper system with us. This includes a buffer installation, but with custom bins (not as high) so about 350kg of tomatoes can fit inside,” he says. “This way harvesting can continue all day, also with the expanded greenhouse." Also Qii-drives will be used in the new facility. "We do not harvest walking but rather standing on top of a car, in order to increase picking performance. On these types of machines, you don’t have to reach for higher growing tomatoes, and it has a small raised platform added so that workers of all sizes can reach every tomato.”

The new greenhouse will be built from the ground up with these systems incorporated. “These systems are quite an investment,” Hans says. Luckily this investment was already made in the previous greenhouse, that was built by the company two years ago and sold after the various developments in the Canadian market. "Now these systems are coming along to the new greenhouse as well.”

It might be clear: even though Hans calls it functional, the massive project can easily be called impressive and very thought-through. Hans laughs when hearing this - but can't really disagree. It's his Dutch background that comes through in this: a life ago he owned a vine tomato company in Huissen, the Netherlands. "I just came back from Holland, where I visited the Westland,” he says. “There are a lot of big companies there, crammed together. Here there is a lot more space. Everything is big in North America, and it keeps growing.”