Conventional and organic: greenhouse grower does it all

“At Great Lakes Greenhouses, we do different kind of organic Products like TOV, cherries, Beefs, the 3 different colors of peppers and Mini eggplants. That all concerns the organic part of our operation, as we also have the conventional side of cultivations going on,” says Juan Manual Lopez Garcia, Head grower at Great Lakes Greenhouses. “Our greenhouses extend over 120 acres. At some point, I believe we were one of the biggest greenhouse companies in North America in one spot, which is also the market we serve: the US and Canada, that is.”

Organic sector on the rise 
Juan has joined the company four years ago, and the split between organic and conventional cultivation was already established. “Before that, the company was mainly growing long English cucumbers. Then, the owner saw that the organic sector was on the rise. He saw the opportunity to diversify the business for organic products, and here we are.”

So, what’s the difference between the two types of cultivation methods employed at Great Lakes Greenhouses? “To get the organic label, one of the requirements is plants need to be grown in soil,” Juan explains. “According to the regulation, there needs to be a certain percentage of soil in your medium. By putting the plants in pots, for instance, it’s easier for us to remove plants if they get a pest or pathogen. On the other hand, for the conventional side, we employ an umbrella system, and we use rock wool.”

The conventional side has also been equipped with some supplemental lighting. “We started playing with artificial light a couple of years ago, and we are seeing good results.” Juan and Great Lakes Greenhouses employ a hybrid lighting system. “We like to always try different stuff and to learn. We are also aware that what might work for one grower doesn’t work for every grower. That’s how we came to the current system. For some crops, we use HPS, and for others, LEDs. It depends on what’s better for a given crop. We light for peppers, tomatoes, and even eggplants for instance.”

Pushing through the hurdles 
Operating a 120-acre greenhouse can be quite financially intensive, and during these times of energy crisis, it can be a challenge to keep growing normally. “We are doing everything to counter the price increase by optimizing our processes,” Juan points out. “We play a lot with temperatures and try not to push that much. At the same time, our 120 acres are divided into 8 ranges plus 1 propagation area. All the ranges are in different stages of the crop, so there are different things we do to specifically up the efficiency of a given compartment.”

Next to the increasing operating costs, tomato growers have been battling the ToBRFV for quite some time. “We had it for the first crop, 2 weeks before the harvest,” Juan recounts. “For the second crop, we didn’t see any rugose virus until weeks 25-28. We have learned that everything needs extremely thorough disinfection. We clean our lines, we clean all the pots, all the bowls – as much as we can. We give gloves to the guys in the greenhouse, they have coats and must clean their hands and so on. We saw good results by improving our hygiene.” However, not every grower can deal with the ToBRFV. “I heard about some farms that they had to finish after 10 weeks of harvest and then they remove all the plants. Thing is, I don’t know how much money you can make by only harvesting that many weeks.”

Aside from that, Great Lakes Greenhouses hasn’t had serious pest problems for some time, also thanks to the implementation of beneficials in the IPM regiment. “We used to struggle against spider mites,” he says. “But for 2 years, we have started using more beneficials, and we are having great results. This also very much aligns with our organic principles, as we are at a point where we barely spray anything.”

Juan says that the company has been active for 35 years, run by the same family. “We’ll keep riding the momentum. The owner and their family have been doing this for such a long time, and we continue to see success.”

For more information:
Great Lakes Greenhouses Inc.

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