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Research the market before you build, says greenhouse specialist

Most Manitoba greenhouses produce bedding plants, but they often 
face tough competition from big-box retailers, says Brian Hunt

Marketing — not production — should be the first consideration of anyone thinking of getting into the greenhouse business.

“Rule No. 1 is identify your customer, and how you will access your customers,” said Brian Hunt, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives’ greenhouse and alternative crops specialist.

The number of greenhouses in Manitoba is increasing, but making money off them is challenging, Hunt said at the recent Direct Farm Marketing Conference.

Bedding plants are, by far, the most popular form of production in the province’s 250 commercial greenhouses and a common lament of growers is the loss of sales to big-box retailers, even if they have competitively priced and higher-quality products, he said.

It’s critical to do your research and identify both your target market and your competition, he said.

“Then you’ll be able to consider what to build to suit your intention and purpose,” he said.

There’s a wide range of options when it comes to greenhouse types.

Double-poly Quonset style or the double-poly gutter-connected greenhouses are very popular; A-frame greenhouses are easiest to build, and gable roof greenhouses are best adapted for commercial operations, he said. Seasonal structures are also quite a bit cheaper.

“If you’re running a seasonal greenhouse, the cost will be between $7 to $15 a square foot (to build),” said Hunt. “If you’re looking at something year round it can be anywhere from $15 to $35 a square foot depending on the automated controls and level of  technologies you want to embrace.”

If you opt for a heated structure, natural gas is the cheapest fuel but not available everywhere, so electricity or some form of biomass must be considered, said Hunt.

“There is a lot of interest in passive solar heating too,” he said. “But in Manitoba, we’re not going to have a passive solar design that can do it all — unless you have a system where you can collect the heat and seal it up at night so that you have no heat loss whatsoever.”

Because of our climate, most greenhouses operate seasonally, from February/March to September.

Hunt encourages would-be greenhouse operators to consider trying high tunnel production first. They cost less (usually $1 to $3 a square foot), and are a good way to learn the ins and outs of growing in controlled environments, he said.

Because of the high cost and lower quality of imported vegetables, there’s increased interest in greenhouse production in northern Manitoba, said Hunt, noting there are vegetable greenhouses now operating at Leaf Rapids and Thompson.

Many northern communities want greenhouses, but face infrastructure challenges, including access to water and heating sources, he said.

There’s about 4-1/2 acres of greenhouse vegetable production in the province, out of a total of about 73 acres. The sector generates $59 million in sales annually.

More information about greenhouse construction and market planning can be found at: www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/greenhouse.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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