Technological advancements, varietal development, consumer product knowledge - these are just a few of the changes seen in the last 25 years at Delta, B.C.-based Windset Farms. John Newell, chief operating officer, reflects as the grower celebrates 25 years of operating in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) space.
Harvesting Windset's Concerto Grape Tomatoes.
“Twenty five years ago, technologies were very minimal. Some of our growers even remember hand-pollinating the plants,” says Newell. However, through the years, technologies have advanced in many areas of the operation, from growing to packing and more. “We pride ourselves on having the newest technologies and are always exploring the latest advancements. Our growers are also always researching and trialing new varieties to find better tasting fruits,” he says.
In turn, that has helped with Windset’s varietal developments in its offerings, most of which have been in the past decade particularly. “When we first started growing tomatoes, there weren’t nearly as many tomato varieties available in the market. Today, you can find all sorts of sizes, colors, and flavors,” says Newell. He notes that Windset is constantly testing new varieties and that its Symphony Tomato Medley pack has seen the most changes over the years and continues to improve.
Watching the trends
One of the more recent trends in its offerings are snacking items, which for Windset include Symphony Tomato Medley, Cameo Cherry Tomatoes on the Vine, and Fresco Baby Cucumbers. Last year, the company also introduced Heirloom Tomatoes. “These ugly, beautiful tomatoes are a huge hit with our customers and we expect demand to keep increasing as more and more chefs and social media influencers are incorporating them into recipes,” says Newell.
Left: John Newell; right: Cameo Cherry Tomatoes on the Vine, which are part of Windset's snacking offerings.
Windset has also focused on offering unique items such as Crescendo Sweet Long Peppers and Gusto Shishito Peppers. “These have been particularly popular during the pandemic as people get more creative in their kitchens,” says Newell. That creativity is expected to carry through to the holidays this year - snack boards, for instance, are predicted to continue to be popular, and for Windset, that means focusing on moving key items for boards such as its Fresco Baby Cucumbers and Dolce Sweet Mini Peppers. “Consumers are really enjoying cooking at home these days, and we’ve seen a demand increase for tomatoes on the vine (TOVs) and beefsteak tomatoes because of it, especially during the winter season, for hearty soups and stews.”
In fact, the knowledge that consumers have around their food is another significant development Windset has seen in the industry. “Customers are more educated on growing practices and sustainability initiatives. With so much information out there, it’s important that everything we do leaves the lowest impact on our environment,” Newell commented. “Sustainability has always been extremely important to us, but now, more than ever, we have to make sure we are educating our customers on what we are doing to address their concerns.”
The importance of sustainability
Environmental sustainability is also one of the most important factors Newell sees for the future of growing. “Both in British Columbia and California, we have seen effects of climate change, including massive forest fires, extreme heat, and rainstorms. At Windset Farms, we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint and will continue to operate in the most sustainable way possible.”
Along with locations in British Columbia and California, Windset also has partner growers in Mexico. November is traditionally a transition month and product is finishing up in Canada. “Looking ahead, our production in California is looking great and Mexican production is increasing steadily. Holiday demand will start to pick up, and between our California and Mexico operations, we are ready to take on the supply increase.”
Windset lowers its electrical footprint and dependency on local power grids with solar panel systems. It also uses CO2 by collecting 100 percent of the CO2 generated from boilers and feeds it to its plants to increase photosynthesis.
Meanwhile, demand for greenhouse-grown vegetables is shifting back to pre-pandemic levels from a customer mix perspective. “This time last year restaurants were still struggling and people were not 100 percent comfortable with dining out. Most of the supply was going to grocery stores. This year we are starting to see those restaurant and foodservice customers come back,” Newell says.
As Windset looks towards its future to meet that shift in demand, Newell says it is going to celebrate this milestone by showing its appreciation for its team members. “Whether they’ve been with the company since its inception 25 years ago or have just joined our team, we value every employee’s input and dedication to deliver fresh produce to the world."